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Clemenza's Corner [Featuring Guest Reviewer Vincenzo]

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  The Punisher
Jonathan Hensleigh, USA, 2004
Rating: 1.5

Posted: April 18, 2004

From looking at my photo, it probably doesn't surprise you to learn that I am a man who appreciates a good, violent action movie. I suppose hoity-toity art films like Fellini's 8 Weeks (Editor's Note: Yes, yes, we know he means 8 . So don't write to us about it, okay?), Storytelling or My Best Friend's Wedding have their place, but for my money, there's no better use of the cinematic form than to blow shit up and fire off a bunch of guns. So I had nothing but high hopes for this latest cinematic adaptation of The Punisher. I've always admired the pristine beauty of the comic book, especially the Garth Ennis take on the character, of which some elements appear in this film. It's like a boxing match: You got your bad guy over here, you got your one-man killing machine over here, plop 'em both in the ring and watch the carnage ensue. Perfect.

But I'm here to tell you, this film shoots nothing but blanks. It's got a plot so full of holes you'd think The Punisher himself had taken a Howitzer to the script before they started shooting. Worse, it preaches one thing and delivers something else entirely. Frank Castle doesn't dedicate his life to killing copious amounts of bad guys because he wants revenge for the murder of his family. He does it because that tragedy has shown him that the world is an unfair place, and it needs someone like him balancing the scales. The movie pays lip service to this idea, especially at the end, where Castle takes pains to separate his cause -- punishment -- from justice or revenge.

But the violence in The Punisher takes a sadistic pleasure in the eradication of its villains that betrays that code, and borders on the pornographic. When chief villain Howard Saint (John Travolta) kills his top lieutenant, he stabs him repeatedly, in close quarters, as the confused, loyal henchman pathetically sputters his last words. It's like the scene in One False Move where the camera lingers lovingly over the deaths of a house full of folks who are stabbed, whimpering for their lives, and suffocated with plastic bags. In fact, all the main baddies are dispatched in ways that pile on the indignities -- purely, it seems, for the malicious shock value of watching them die in confusion and agony. And that's not what The Punisher is about.

Okay, okay, I can already hear you: "But Vincenzo," you're saying, "They're bad guys. They deserve to die, and it's supposed to be unpleasant." To which I say: Shut your pie-hole, I know what I'm talking about here. The Punisher is about the calm, detached dispensation of punishment to guilty types who, usually, are some way or another above the law. Sure, Castle (Thomas Jane) goes about his business with nary an emotional tic, except for a heavy reliance on Wild Turkey. But the money shots -- the killing scenes -- are overindulgent in the same way that eventually rendered the immortal Charles Bronson's Death Wish movies irrelevant. True, the book, especially under Ennis, often veers into the same territory, but taken together with a humorous, over-the-top tone, it all fits. Here, the feel is unrelentingly dark, and the whole slasher-flick vibe, already inappropriate to the spirit of the character and the book, just makes it worse. Hell, I won't even mention the fact that The Punisher is heavily marketed as a Marvel Comics movie, which to most folks means Spider-Man and X-Men, not an exploitation snuff film. (Whoops. Guess I just did.)

Adding insult to injury is the plot itself. Saint's son dies as a result of a bust involving Castle (who's an FBI agent in this film). So Saint, seeking revenge, kills the man's entire family, and I do mean entire, down to the last uncle, aunt and step-cousin. Castle somehow miraculously survives -- with the help of a mysterious island Witch Doctor-type, no less. So he heads back to Tampa, where Saint is based, and lets himself be shown on live television! Not only does everyone know he's alive -- not the best way to go about hunting down your prey, when you could let them think you're still dead -- but Saint's goons apparently know where he lives! You think in real life the bad guys would just send one or two assassins to the apartment building he shares with a trio of hard-luck losers? No. They'd blow the fucker sky-high, that's what they'd do!

I could go on, but you get the point. This is a cheap excuse for an action film, with a laughably thin storyline and a disturbing fixation with grisly, unsatisfying deaths that's completely inconsistent with Castle's cold, taking-care-of-business demeanor. Plus, Travolta's excessive hamming makes the movie a cartoon. If it weren't for some intermittent eye-candy provided by Laura Elena Harring (as Saint's equally evil, but hot, wife) and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Castle's lovestruck neighbor (far too hot to buy in the role of an unlucky-in-love mouse of a woman), this would get the lowest rating I could muster. Well, the babes, and a great bit involving Mark Collie as a guitar-slinging hit man straight out of a Robert Rodriguez movie. But ultimately, it's not worth the bother. Don't buy a ticket, don't rent it, don't even stop on it when it comes on cable and you're channel-surfing past. You're better off with The Punisher's original cinematic version: You know, that straight-to-video crapfest starring Dolph Lundgren. Yeah. This is that bad.

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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