The Punisher
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Jonathan Hensleigh
scr Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France
with Tom Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Laura Harring, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster, John Pinette, Eddie Jemison, Roy Scheider, Samantha Mathis, Kevin Nash, Mark Collie
release US 16.Apr.04, UK 24.Sep.04
Lions Gate
04/US 2h04

Ready, aim, slaughter: Jane

jane travolta patton
harring romijn-stamos foster
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Although based on a Marvel comic, this isn't a superhero movie; rather, it's the strongly written, filmed and acted back-story of a ruthless vigilante. This is the third revenge drama in one month (alongside Walking Tall and Man on Fire) that asks us to justify sadistic brutality simply because the central character is the designated "good guy". And while that may be unsurprising in these political times, it's still a dangerous message.

Frank Castle (Jane) is leaving his undercover FBI career to spend time with his family. But on his last job, the son of fierce Tampa crime boss Howard Saint (Travolta) is inadvertently killed. And now Saint and his wife (Harring) send their henchman (Patton) to get revenge, slaughtering the entire Castle family. But Frank survives, and comes back to get even in the most merciless way imaginable. His focussed drive toward carnage is briefly sidetracked when his goofy-fragile neighbours (Romijn-Stamos, Foster and Pinette) befriend him, and when Saint sends two monstrous thugs (Nash and Collie) to finish him off.

Director-cowriter Hensleigh takes time building up the characters, and this is the film's main strength; there's enough subtext to keep us interested through the horrific killings. He also punctuates the film with cleverly funny sequences that add the humanity missing from the driving narrative. And the cast seizes these elements to make their characters much more than cartoons. As Travolta gets increasingly crazed, his character actually becomes more sympathetic in his grief and his uncontrollable rage. Meanwhile, Jane seems to grow more muscly and oiled by the moment, transforming from gruff-but-loving family man into ferocious gay icon. Both are very good, and engage strongly with the excellent supporting cast.

The problem is that we're asked to cheer for one of them to succeed and the other to die! Both employ the same torched-earth tactics, murdering scores of innocent bystanders while saving the most hideous viciousness for the "important" people. The fact that this is considered satisfying for movie audiences is deeply worrying! Because both men are equally amoral criminals. And Hensleigh cannot convince us that there's any difference between revenge and punishment, no matter how hard he tries.

cert 18 themes, strong violence and gore, language 5.May.04

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2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall