Coming back from seeing The Punisher, based on Marvel's comic book of the same name, I'm left wondering how they pulled it off? How could they take a one-trick pony that's been kicking around for the last 20 years, one I never really connected with, and make him an interesting and sympathetic film anti-hero? Jonathan Hensleigh, that's how. Hensleigh was the writer for films such as Jumanji, The Saint and Armageddon, but for his first directing project, he's crafted a lean, mean character piece centered around a popular movie topic right now: REVENGE.
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is a retired FBI agent, a Desert Storm and Special Forces veteran, who just wants to spend more time with his family. However, during his final undercover mission for the bureau something goes wrong and there's an unexpected casualty: Bobby (or maybe it was John, they were twins after all) Saint.
Howard Saint (John Travolta) just happens to be the most powerful player in the Tampa underworld, and when one of his sons winds up dead, he wants satisfaction, as does his wife, Livia (Laura Harring), who promptly orders all traces of Frank Castle wiped out of existence. Luckily for Saint, Frank and his family, and I do mean his ENTIRE family, are having a big reunion in Puerto Rico. Faster than you can say "Fish in a Barrel," Saint's private army, including his right hand man Quentin (Will Patton), slaughter everyone and leave Frank for dead. Hanging onto life by a thread and fueled by the need for revenge, Frank is able to come back with the help of an island spiritualist. He takes his father's custom gun collection (conveniently left at the scene of the crime) and heads back to Tampa where he makes a plan to get his revenge.
Back in the states, Frank hides out in a dive apartment, stocks up at the FBI's armory (a little too easily in my opinion) and prepares to wage a one-man war against the people who have wronged him. Along the way, we are introduced to Frank's neighbors: Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Dave (Ben Foster) and Bumpo (John Pinette). A group of misfits who are living on the fringe of society and sense Frank to be one of their own: a Father figure for the constantly bullied Dave and Bumpo, and a would-be hero for the battered Joan. Frank doesn't come out of his shell easily and when he's not systematically dismantling Saint's criminal empire, he's crawling into a bottle of Wild Turkey. It's when Frank finally reveals himself to be alive by interupting a press conference being held by the Police Commissioner, that Saint starts fighting back. First sending a guitar wielding hitman by the name of Harry Heck to serenade his new nemesis to death. Then calling on a bruiser, known only as the Russian, to remodel Frank's face, as well as his apartment, in a brutal knock-down, drag-out fight set to the strains of "Rigoletto."
Frank is not easily swayed from his single-minded goal; to take away everything that Howard Saint holds dear, and then when that's sunk in, to take away his life. Frank has destroyed Saint's businesses, destroyed his reputation in the underworld, made him kill his own Wife and Best friend (whom Frank manipulated events into looking like they were having an affair) until finally he pays what's left of him and his private army a very personal call. This finale is truly graphic and what I would describe as a hard R. There are countless men gunned down point blank, blown to smithereens and knifed to death. The killings are very brutal and Frank goes about it in a very professional and workman-like manner. When he gets the final burn on Saint, by showing him that it was he who took away everything from him, it's especially satisfying for us, but it's cathartic for Frank who goes home after the bloodbath to kill himself. Realizing that there are more "Howard Saints" in the world stops him from pulling the trigger, and just like that, The Punisher is born.
Maybe not having much experience with the comic allowed me to refrain from nit-picking this movie enough to let me truly enjoy it. It's not an overly large, special effects driven superhero piece. Instead, being a modest $30 million picture that is a very gritty, personal revenge drama. The film still feels like a comic book, especially when characters like Harry Heck, the Russian, or even the neighbors, Dave and Bumpo are present, and it ranks right up there with Hellboy and X-Men 2 as the right way to bring these characters to life. All of these films treat the characters as absolutes, existing in a world that is just a hair's breadth away from our own, maybe not a place I'd like to live, but I sure enjoy stopping by for a visit.