The Punisher

(Jonathan Hensleigh, USA, 2004)


In one of those surreal experiences that comes with the job of movie reviewing, I turned around at the preview of The Punisher and spotted in the crowd one Mistress Ursula, featured in the Australian documentary Strange Hungers about bondage and discipline.

I can only hope she enjoyed the punishment meted out in this movie more than I did.

The Punisher is an odd spectacle. It is made with conviction and verve, but ultimately amounts to very little. Based on an especially gruesome and sadistic Marvel comic (filmed previously with Dolph Lundgren in the leading role), it follows the journey of Frank (Thomas Jane) from law-abiding family man to renegade revenge-freak.

At the moment early in proceedings when Frank limped down a pier while his wife (Samantha Mathis) and child faced a fearsome threat, I was ready for a spirited remake of the first Mad Max movie by George Miller.

But once Frank – with the aid of a T-shirt given to him by his son – erases his everyday identity and becomes the cold, steely Punisher, the cartoon-style sensibility of this film goes way out of control.

Director Jonathan Hensleigh, a veteran of scripts for action movies including Armageddon (1998), tries to stay true to the rather thin mythology of the original comic book. But once the revenge-killing begins, he has only one card up his sleeve: to make us laugh at extreme acts of violence. It's a tired game, and one that Kill Bill (2003/4) plays much better.

In The Punisher, the characterisations become as silly as the endless variations on murdering and dying. Whenever the women in Frank's life, such as the saintly Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), stand looking sadly into the distance as the warrior marches off into battle, we are meant to find this slyly hip and ironically corny.

In a film where the thrills come from the hero's demented sadism, it is hard to create a villain who is a believable embodiment of evil. John Travolta as Howard Saint tries to play it fairly straight, even investing a little pathos into his family problems with a dead son and a possibly cheating wife, Livia (Laura Harring).

Indeed, family seems to be the central motif on Hensleigh's mind – especially when Frank stumbles into a surrogate, makeshift family comprised of loners and outsiders like him. Unfortunately, their humble but cute home exists in the film only to be trashed by The Punisher as he drags an oversize opponent from room to room (and through every wall).

© Adrian Martin June 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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