NB- I feel like I was having a crack at being the A.O. Scott of 2004 with a lot of these early reviews. Please forgive my pompous bloviating and accept it for a comic insight into contrarian critical overreach, at very least.
Caveat emptor- the unspoken, generally accepted maxim upon which one must base all excursions into the darkened bowels of your local moving picture emporium.
Let the buyer beware.
Yes, 97% of Hollywood’s output is unconscionable sputum- The Day After Tomorrow, Troy, Van Helsing et al- festering, unimaginative, LCD mucous dredged up from deep beyond the S-Bend.
But! You’re a thinking, reasoning human being with the full range of critical faculties, right? Ergo, you have no grounds upon which to complain.
What, then, of those movies that fly so low on the ol’ expectations radar that- wha’theFUCK? they actually turn out to be, well, enjoyable?
The Punisher (2004) is one of those rare cinematic Stealth Bombers.
Which isn’t to say that this particular entry into the oeuvre of revenge cinema is in any way defensible as, well, good; you definitely won’t be chugging lattes and stroking your esoteric facial hair with your chums from the VCA post ‘viewing experience’.
(They always sniffed at your Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson fixation, anyway.)
Plain, simple: The Punisher is a ruthlessly cold, meat and potatoes kill ’em up.
Once tuned into its straight to video frequency, you’ll find your inner eleven year old gleefully revelling in a compilation of all those Reagan-era, post-Vietnam one man army flicks you saw in the ’80s; that golden era of wince inducing torture, Messianic heroes, dirty Reds, insurmountable odds, and gloriously liberated bosoms.
Back then, you could get away with a line like ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum- if you want peace, prepare for war’ (*racking of heavy machine gun*).
Yes, at its core, The Punisher is an NRA recruitment video of staggering proportions.
From the opening scene, the old ‘Arms Heist /FBI Sting Gone Terribly Wrong’, is related in lingering, erotically charged closeup: slo-mo heavy artillery ejaculation the order of the day.
Undercover FBI good bloke Frank Castle (Tom Jane) is the Stinger in question.
Cunningly essaying the role of John Malkovich playing Christopher Lambert playing a Russian Weapons Dealer, Castle is implicated in the murder of Ruthless Crime Boss Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son.
Saint, unimaginatively, orders Castle’s entire family killed.
In a scene beamed directly from Charlton Heston’s stickiest nocturnal thrashings, Frank and his Dad, Roy Scheider, leer over the old man’s collection of lovingly reconditioned firearms, discussing, in steamy, fetishistic detail, the various oilings, borings and refittings they’ve undergone.
Then the extended Castle clan is massacred in a brutal, slow motion revenge killing, forcing Pater Castle and Son into a spot of bonding, Winchester stylee.
Unsurprisingly, Dad cops one in the back, the Wife and Tousle-haired Son are killed in particularly nasty, vehicular fashion, while Frank is left to an explosive death.
Five minutes pass, and Frank has taken up chugging Wild Turkey like Bon Scott after a liver transplant, bonding tentatively with the losers in his tenement and occasionally finding time for a spot of ‘one man war on crime’ waging.
Why is a vigilante on a bloodthirsty kill spree drunk off his tits while a vengeance-crazed Don sends myriad colourful assassin types to off him? Why would he reveal himself to the media and police before embarking on his homicidal vendetta? And why, in God’s name, does he stage elaborate pranks involving portable fire hydrants, lost diamond earrings and gay henchmen?
Comic book Frank Castle does not finesse.
Comic book Frank Castle is an animal-smart, dyed in the wool psycho who, when presented with an opportunity to plug Goon X between the eyes, does so. Repeatedly, for good measure.
Comic book Frank Castle dispenses with platoons of cannon fodder in inventive, blackly slapstick fashion- Garth Ennis’ mini series, on which the movie was nominally based, featured a procession of Mafioso types being dropped off buildings, used as human shields, decapitated by polar bears, flamethrown. And let’s not forget that limbless woman he dropkicks into a burning building.
Now Dolph, bless his tastefully backlit testes, offed ninety one assorted criminal types in his Punisher go ‘round (1989), usually with guns you’d find strapped to helicopters. And Oscar Winner Lou Gossett Jr alludes to the 125 priors in five years- an admittedly pitiful average of twenty five a year.
To its merit, though, our Punisher lashes on some moments of inspired bloodletting.
One such scene involves Frank’s aforementioned neighbours.
While ex-alcoholic/junkie/ supermodel/ Nickelback enthusiast Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and pie-fan Mr Bumpo look on in horror, Saint’s searingly camp right hand man Quentin (!) yanks out heavily pierced bong-demon Spacker Dave’s various body mods with a set of pliers.
Be thankful Dave hadn’t gotten ‘round to getting that Prince Albert.
With its tortures and righteous crusades, is, allegorically speaking, The Punisher a prescient reaction to the mess in Iraq? Is Frank Castle fighting a lone battle in much the same way that John Rambo, Dutch Schaefer and Col. John Matrix refought Vietnam and ‘won’? Are we on the cusp of a fresh new era of filmic cowboy justice, ‘good’ men killing ‘bad’ ones like George W’d want?
Probably not- but it was pretty cool to see a henchman get stabbed in the throat through to the roof of his mouth.
All told, The Punisher gives good, cheap, pre- politically everything, ‘venge ’em up bloodbath gratification.
To his credit, writer/ director Jonathan Hensleigh neatly eschews those passe Michael Bay stylings in favour of wall of sound Ennio Morricone Lite scoring and blatant cribs from gifted auteurs of Mark Goldblatt (Commando) and Albert Pyun’s (Cyborg) ilk. Performance-wise, Tom Jane delivers a fine, fixed squinty grimace coupled with oily sixpack; Travolta does his Semi-Restrained Bad Guy Thing, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos looks uncomfortable in a waitress’ uniform.
Sure, it delivers some kooky apologias on the politics of revenge and atonement-
…in certain…”extreme” situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue… natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response. No. Not vengeance. This is punishment.
But what’d you expect from the bloke that wrote Armageddon?