The Punisher in Film – Part 1

Frank Castle, the Punisher

Essentially Don Pendleton’s Mack “The Executioner” Bolan dressed up as Nedor Comics Golden Age superhero The Black Terror, Marvel’s derivative vigilante the Punisher is mostly nothing more or less than a quasi-archetypal avenging character. Like many before and since, Frank Castle sets off a violent crusade against crime after loved ones – in this case his wife and children – are killed by the mafia. Although Marvel has allowed the Punisher to co-exist in the same universe as its superpowered characters, rather nonsensically neutering the character concept in much the same way DC has with Batman, he does achieve a compelling, if grim, power on his own urban turf, mostly because of the compelling theatricality of his iconic costume; black with a stylized white skull on the chest. Only the PunisherMAX series, innovated by noted writer Garth Ennis, kept it real at the price of amping up the gruesome scenarios, violence, torture, and characters so morally deformed they’d fit into a horror movie. At least, so I gather from Wikipedia and comic book review sites.

The Black Terror in his first appearance in 1941.

From the various interpretations available to filmmakers, there’s an entire range of Punisher styles to choose from. Of the three attempts to bring the Punisher to film, the most recent, Punisher: War Zone starring Ray Stevenson, is hardly worth considering. Setting aside the contemptuous critical consensus, the red-band trailer was so gory and ultra-violent that pushing the film off the must-see radar seems eminently sensible. I skipped that one. That leaves the 2004 film starring Thomas Jane, and the much-maligned 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren.

Of the 2004 film, one can say this; it is slickly produced, well-acted, and cinematic. But the story is trash without the good manners, or good humour, to acknowledge itself as such. Instead, director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh yields to Shakespearean pretensions without the ability to manage the scale. Hence, a few amplifications. Not content with the death of Frank’s wife and children, Hensleigh arranges it so that his entire extended family, roughly thirty in all, are slaughtered on the orders of gangster Howard Saint or, to be accurate, Howard’s wife Livia. The rationale is straightforward, if off-target in the usual villain’s way – retaliation for a police sting involving illegal weapons that results in the death of the eldest Saint son. But the motivation is flimsy given Livia’s near absence of character other than that of gangster moll with a predilection for shopping and an arbitrary mean-streak more or less equal to her husband’s. Looking to Howard Saint, played with sneering gusto by John Travolta, won’t yield more character than that of the usual nasty deranged by jealously and cruel vindictiveness.

The whole ordeal of the massacre plays out interminably, with Hensleigh extracting as much discomfort as possible in presenting the victims chased and gunned down. Frank’s wife and son are particularly subjected to the indignity of a vicious, sadistic death by pickup truck, culminating in Frank himself being captured, beaten, shot, shot again in the chest at point-blank range, then left to sizzle on a burning dock. From here, it becomes an exercise in Frank evading death at the hands of two bizarre assassins sent by Saint – one a reject from Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi films who croons his murderous intentions before acting on them, the other a massive boss-type opponent borrowed from a video game – while making half-hearted attempts to set up his own revenge against the Saints. He slums around a decrepit apartment building shared with the film’s only nod towards tenderness, comedy, and characters with actual personalities – a nod exploited, inevitably, to further demonstrate the Saints’ sadism – until, finally, he unleashes his revenge in a scheme inspired by Othello and spiked with an excess of lurid, cruel brutality. In all this, the film’s structure is faithful to the revenge horror formula in which atrocities committed against the innocent become license to cheerlead monstrous payback.

If Hensleigh’s manipulative approach to the material isn’t bad enough, the film’s failure is compounded by its function as an origin story. Other than a t-shirt bearing the famous skull that Thomas Jane sports around – ridiculously contrived as a gift from Castle’s son – there’s little of the Punisher persona to be found in the film, to the point where the whole affair could have been delivered under a different moniker and no one would be at a loss. The most notable approximation is Castle’s manifesto delivered via voice over, in which he confidently proclaims that “Revenge is not a valid motive, it's an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.” Really? The whole film reeks of revenge and the exploitation of suffering…and audience-insulting intellectual dishonesty. As for Thomas Jane, he’s a fine enough actor but never achieves the physical menace and intimidating presence the character demands. Hensleigh’s characterization further hinders Jane, in that his interpretation of Castle is devoid not only of threat, but also the tactical cunning that makes him a fearsome opponent. If Castle survives the vicious assaults on his body, including the wounds suffered in a brawl with a giant Russian (the aforementioned boss-type) so tough he shrugs off a knife stabbed in his shoulder, it is only through sheer willpower…Hensleigh’s will, that is. Certainly Castle himself rarely lives up to his background as a special ops commando, being easily outmatched on a home turf rigged with all manners of defensive and offensive measure to counter attackers.

To be continued...

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