Montreal Film Journal

THE PUNISHER

This is the 15th anniversary re-release of the 1989 action classic that starred respected Swedish thespian Dolph Lundgren, beloved by North American audiences for his soulful portrayal of He-Man in "Masters of the Universe" and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV...

Oh wait, this is actually a new adaptation of the Marvel comic book. How unnecessary! Sure, the original "Punisher" flick was a cheapie B-movie, but it was campy fun and the action scenes were surprisingly effectively crafted by director Mark Goldblatt, the editor of some of the best action films ever made ("Terminator" and T2, "Rambo: First Blood part II", Starship Troopers, Commando...).

"The Punisher" (2004) is the directorial debut of Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote "Die Hard with a vengeance" and script-doctored a bunch of Bruckheimer flicks. Well, this script certainly could have used some doctoring, and any of Bruckheimer's directors-for-hire could have made a less feeble movie than this. I've seen better straight-to-video Van Damme vehicles!

So you got this dude Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) who used to be in the army and who's now an undercover op for the FBI in Tampa. During an arms deal bust, one of the sons of big-time mobster Howard Saint (John Travolta) is gunned down and Saint demands bloody satisfaction, Keyser Soze-style. He orders a hit not only on Castle but on his son, his wife, his parents and his wife's parents, who are conveniently having a barbecue altogether in Puerto Rico. Somehow Frank survives and reemerges months later, returning to the family villa to get his father's guns (which are still at the crime scene?) and stumbling on a skull-emblazed T-shirt his dead son had bought for him in a street market (whaaaa???). Castle picks it up and turns to a fisherman who nods and tells him, "Go with God". "God's gonna sit this one out."

See, that was a pretty so-bad-it's-good one-liner there, but it needs to be said in a big voice and a big accent. Think about it: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Dolph Lundgren... Big voices, big accents. Thomas Jane's a decent actor, but he sounds like a Maryland real estate agent. The black dye-job they did on his naturally blonde hair looks awful and while he clearly got into shape for the role, this is not comic book musculature in any way; Jane's so-called Punisher couldn't vigilante his way out of a paper bag.

Then you've got the supporting players... There are no words... You have NO idea how lousy they are. Ok, so Castle shacks up in a decrepit tenement building in Tampa to prepare his revenge and chug Wild Turkey while crying over pictures of his folks. That's too heavy, I guess, so the movie gives him a trio of WACKY! neighbors straight out of a sitcom. You've got Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), a lard-ass in a Hawaiian shirt who's always eating, Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), a video-game playing slacker with lotsa piercings, and Joan ‘the mouse' (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a waitress who attracts asshole boyfriends.

Then you've got the bad guys, a bunch of Miami Vice henchmen who look like Sears catalogue models; I mean, these are clearly not actors, not with such uniformly wooden delivery! As for Travolta's coiffed, pipe-smoking, hissy tantrum-throwing villain... Again, no words can do justice to all the little ways in which he's lame. If he's given a worse performance than this, I haven't seen it (and I've seen Perfect!).

There's a fight with The Russian (Kevin Nash) that's nicely comic book and some potentially cool Joel Silver-style shoot-outs near the end, but you can't even enjoy those few bits of gratuitous ultraviolence and excessive mayhem properly because Hensleigh keeps cutting to stupid crap (Mr. Bumpo singing opera, etc.), the models playing the bad guys can't even convincingly die and everything is unimaginatively shot. Worse, we never care about anyone in the film, not even the Punisher. We don't believe in his grief, and we don't believe that he's got the balls to do anything about it. Seriously, Thomas Jane's done good work in the past, but he's spectacularly miscast here.

I miss Dolph Lundgren.

4/11/2004