The Punisher (April 15/04)
The Punisher is probably destined to be the least successful comic book adaptation to emerge since the genre's recent resurgence, primarily because of the occasionally unpleasant violence and the titular character's lack of super powers. But the real reason The Punisher isn't all that great lies in the film's structure, which often seems to favor the central villain over the Punisher himself. With John Travolta cast as the evil Howard Saint, the filmmakers undoubtedly felt pressure to beef up the role (there's no denying that Travolta is a far bigger star than Thomas Jane, who plays the Punisher). Because the Punisher - aka Frank Castle - is such an intriguing character, the film essentially stops dead in its tracks during the Saint sequences.
It probably doesn't help that all the majority of the stuff involving Saint's crime syndicate feels like it'd be more at home in a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City mission, what with the heavy emphasis on money laundering and other assorted illegal endeavors. The film's setup - involving the massacre of Castle's entire family (including distant relatives!) by Saint's goons, thus Castle's transformation into the Punisher - leads one to believe that a Bronson-esque story of revenge is soon to follow. And while that is partly true, there are far too many subplots and diversions peppered throughout the story.
The inclusion of two wacky neighbors at the ramshackle apartment Castle calls home is particularly distracting - not to mention completely unnecessary. They serve no purpose other than to bring some humor to the proceedings, but this isn't the kind of story that requires lighter moments. Frank Castle is a man that's lost his entire family and has since dedicated his life to revenge; the film's tone should've reflected the dark nature of Castle's psyche. Instead, we're treated to sequences in which said wacky neighbors dance around while listening to opera. Huh?
Yet despite such silliness the film remains fairly entertaining throughout, primarily due to the efforts of Jane as the Punisher. The actor delivers a gritty performance that's entirely believable; Castle's inward retreat and binge drinking is just the sort of reaction one would expect out of a guy that watched everyone he loves get massacred. But director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the downbeat nature of the story, and continually turns to the aforementioned subplots and self-parody (there's a moment in which the Punisher shoots two goons and they both fall backwards into glass).
Though the film is likely an improvement over the 1989 Dolph Lundgren adaptation, Hensleigh's approach leaves a lot to be desired. In attempting to appeal to a wider audience, The Punisher never quite becomes the 21st century's answer to Death Wish. Still, Jane's performance and the surprisingly violent moments probably make this worth a look.