THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The comic book movie has become a genre all its own. In the past year, Iíve seen Daredevil, X-Men 2, and The Hulk. A mere two weeks ago I saw Hellboy. Summer will bring Spider-Man 2. This week, we get The Punisher. I admit knowing little about this Marvel character prior to the film. Iíd heard the name and was familiar with the Punisherís look, but that was all. Will I check out the comics now that Iíve seen the film? Well, considering I got a free comic book with my ticket, yeah, I probably will. As a comics fan, this particular movie didnít capture my imagination the way Hellboy recently has; however, I have to admit that The Punisher worked on me in a ďguilty pleasureĒ kind of way.

Thomas Jane stars as Frank Castle, an undercover FBI agent. As the picture opens, he has set up two drug dealers for a bust. Itís supposed to be simple, but one of the dealers ends up getting killed. He was the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a Florida businessman who makes a fortune on the side laundering money. Saint is distraught over the death of his boy. When he discovers that Castle was responsible for setting up the bust, he orders his right-hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton) to murder the agent. Then his furious wife Livia (Laura Herring) tosses in her two cents and suggests that Glass kill Castleís entire family.

Castle, meanwhile, has retired from the FBI. He decides to enjoy a vacation with his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and their son Will (Marcus Johns). During a beachside family reunion, Saintís men storm the place and kill 27 people. Maria and Will escape but the goons find them and run them over with a Jeep. They then shoot Castle and leave him for dead. Of course, this being a comic book movie, he somehow survives and begins plotting revenge. First, Castle holes up in a dingy apartment building where his neighbors include a couple of misfits named Dave (Ben Foster) and Bumpo (John Pinette), as well as a recovering alcoholic waitress named Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Then he maps out a plan to get even with Saint.

This you-killed-my-family-now-Iím-going-to-kill-you plot has been done at least a million times. (In fact, itís being done twice this weekend, as Kill Bill Vol. II opens at the same time.) Iíve seen the formula done well and Iíve seen it done poorly. Although the concept is old, The Punisher puts some clever variations on the vigilante theme. For starters, Castle doesnít simply storm into Saintís offices and start shooting. Instead, he begins by playing mind games with his enemy. He swipes some cash that Saint is supposed to be laundering, thereby angering some of the manís criminal clientele. Then, rather than killing certain people, he sets some of them up so that they kill each other. This makes the film more interesting than your garden-variety vigilante flick because the hero (or anti-hero, whichever you prefer) uses his brain as well as his arsenal.

Unlike other Marvel comic-inspired movies, The Punisher is a harder film. It is rated R for some rough violence, and the visual look of the movie is much darker. (Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall has done a splendid job giving the picture a gritty style.) Watching the movie, I was reminded of The Crow, a story that has similar themes and a dark, forbidding look. The main difference is that thereís a little more humanity in this story. One of the best scenes comes when Joan and friends trick the loner Castle into coming for dinner. They know what heís been through and want to do something nice for him. ďGood memories can help you survive,Ē Joan says. Thatís an unexpectedly sweet moment. Additionally, I think that Thomas Jane does a very good job playing Frank Castle. Itís a common trap for actors playing vigilantes to simply crank up the testosterone. Jane always keeps the character based in tragedy. Weíre acutely aware that this guy is in deep emotional pain, which is what drives his actions.

I have to be honest and say that parts of The Punisher are difficult to watch. Director Jonathan Hensleigh doesnít linger on the violence; he prefers to let most of it to your imagination (which, in truth, probably makes it worse). However, the scene in which Castleís family gets massacred is rough stuff. The moment when Maria and Will are run down, while not especially graphic, is also upsetting. In fact, these scenes might be a little too upsetting for what is essentially a lightweight action movie. A later scene, in which Glass pulls out Daveís body piercings with a pair of pliers borders on the sadistic and is also somewhat out of place.

If I applied too much thought, I could also take swipes at the movie for gaps in logic. I didnít do that, though. The truth is that I found myself getting involved in The Punisher - admittedly to my surprise. This is not a great comic book movie, nor is Frank Castle the most interesting character in the Marvel collection. But the film is effective in what it wants to do. We see the origin of the character, and the last scene Ė in which Castle puts on a skull T-shirt and declares himself the Punisher Ė sets up possibilities for an interesting sequel. The Punisher is well-made on a technical level. The performances are good, and the battle between good and evil held my attention (especially the final confrontation between Castle and Saint, both of whom have been stripped of everything by this point). I was drawn in. This is not a movie I recommend for everybody; you have to go in willing to see something dark and violent. If thatís your cup of tea, then The Punisher gives you your moneyís worth.

( out of four)

The Punisher is rated R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.


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