Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, "Deep Blue Sea") is an undercover federal officer working the Tampa, Fla. beat. On his final night on active duty before taking a desk job in London, Castle is involved with an arms deal that quickly goes south. The main suspect is killed, and when his rich, criminal kingpin parents (John Travolta and Laura Harring) find out that Castle was behind their son's death, they order hitmen to wipe out Castle's entire family (including Roy Scheider and Samantha Mathis) in one spectacular movement of vengeance. Miraculously surviving the assault, Castle goes into hiding at a dilapidated local apartment building, which is home to fellow rejects of society (including Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster and John Pinette). Building an arsenal and trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol, Castle begins to dole out "punishment" to those who have wronged him, one by one, leading him back to the two people who ruined his life forever.
What divides "The Punisher"(IMDb listing) from other comic book properties is that Frank Castle has no superpowers. He can't fly, bend steel or fall back on any kind of mutant powers. He exists solely to exact revenge on those who deserve punishment. This tale has been produced before, in a dollar-store version from 1990 starring Dolph Lundgren as Castle. Thankfully, writer and first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh has opted to resurrect the character and story, and bring it to the big screen in style. An aggressive, devilishly fun, and often downright wacky motion picture, Hensleigh brings all the right moves to the table to develop the sorrowful tale of Frank Castle for multiplex consumption.
Of course, Hensleigh's pedigree as a writer has prepared him for a film of this magnitude. Having written "Die Hard with a Vengeance," "The Saint" and "Armageddon," Hensleigh has gone through a veritable boot camp of action film styles and speeds. "The Punisher" is a strange story to begin with, incorporating heavy quantities of anger, mourning and sometimes even comedy. The film doesn't disappoint in these arenas, putting some truly effective tragedy onscreen, giving birth to Castle's rage, and ending up with some sizable comedy bits that provide more warmth than is imaginable from a film of this title. The mix is exceedingly well done, keeping "The Punisher" away from leaning too hard on any single element, or dissolving into a generic action rampage. This is quite a peculiar little duck of a film, with Hensleigh going off here and there on weird tangents that hopefully a future DVD commentary will explain.
One scene features a bounty hunter tracking Frank in a diner, with the killer pulling out a guitar and serenading Frank with the song he'll play at his funeral before he attempts to kill him. Another sequence, arguably the film's best, pits Frank against an unstoppable Russian hitman, neither of them fully understanding when to give up the fight. Battling through doors, furniture and walls (!), the two beat each other senseless before it culminates in a kitchen brawl. Odd stuff, really odd stuff, but it gives the film a distinct personality and air of individuality behind the camera.
The funny thing about actor Thomas Jane is that he is very capable of being terrible, so it's easy not to notice when he's actually good anymore. In the title role, Jane has the requisite snarl and growl that has identified the character to millions of readers over the years, along with the classic white-skull t-shirt. Jane recognizes what the role demands, and his commitment goes a long way toward keeping the outlandish situations of the plot out of the sweaty fingertips of reality. Hensleigh and Jane are making a great effort to keep the comic-book feel in the film, and their combined work maintains a high energy and enjoyment quotient.
Hensleigh also keeps his violence proudly R-rated, and includes some of the more brutal bad guy demises seen in the last few years. But as gritty as things get (like hunting-arrow-through-the-neck gritty), Hensleigh creates an operatic vibe for the retribution, scored with gusto by Carlo Silliotto, and levitating the grimness of Castle's actions into an aria of suffering. "The Punisher" is the latest in rock'em, sock'em Marvel comic adaptations, and while it isn't high art, it does achieve the goals it sets for itself. Unlike the recent "Walking Tall," this is a revenge story told straightforwardly and economically, but with a lot of memorable character all its own.
Filmfodder Grade: A-