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A Paternity Leave Review of "The Punisher" (2004)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

As further evidence that craftsmanship is more important than innovation, I submit to you the following proposition: The Punisher is a solid and well-made, albeit rote, revenge movie.  If you're in the market for something violent, grim, and more than a little bit ridiculous, you'll find a lot to love here.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part About the Film's Notoriety

This week has kinda turned into an obsession with complaining about other people's opinions, so I figured I might as well cap things off with a movie that was more infamously hated.

The Punisher is regarded by most as a failure.  Released in 2004 before the comic book movie floodgates fully opened wide, it was panned by critics and took in only a modest sum at the box office.  Ten years and an unsuccessful reboot later, the franchise still seems somehow unfit for the big screen.

There are many things you can point to as flaws in its execution.  Moments of the movie are incredibly stupid and there's a pervasive feeling of groanworthy brooding that hasn't graced the screen since the direct-to-DVD Crow sequels.

But when you view it in terms of a comic book movie, particularly in the context of more hamfisted films like The Fantastic Four or Daredevil, what you end up with is a refreshingly dark and entertaining revenge story.  The Punisher is pretty much a Frankenstein experiment comprised of the best parts of '70s anti-heroes, '80s action movies, '90s grunge, and '00s shimmer.

Now I'll Summarize the Plot

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is an FBI agent working undercover.  He takes part in a sting operation that is meant to bring in a few major league players in drug trade, including Bobby Saint, son of notorious crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta).  The deal goes awry and Bobby is gunned down rather than arrested.

Despite the plot not totally going as planned, Frank and his fellow agents wrap up their case and celebrate a job mostly-well done.  Frank goes to visit his family in Florida and tries to put work out of his mind.  Unfortunately, Howard Saint doesn't forget as easily.  He commands his underlings to kill Frank's family - all of it - in retribution.

What follows is one of the bloodiest massacres put to film.  A couple trucks full of armed thugs show up at a Castle family reunion and shoot everybody to death, leaving Frank mortally wounded.  They dump his body in the ocean, but make the classic villain mistake of not actually making sure he's dead.

After Frank washes ashore and recovers, he moves into a halfway house and tries to figure out what to do with his life now.  First he goes back to the FBI and tries to have them look into the massacre.  But Saint has bribed some officials on the inside to tie up the case - so the investigation has stalled.  Realizing that there will be no justice if he waits for it, Frank decides to take matters into his own hands.

The rest of the movie features him plotting against Saint, gunning down Saint's henchmen, destroying Saint's property, and occasionally squaring off with colorful Boss Henchmen.  For the most part, it works pretty well.  Frank's revenge is generally clever and deeply satisfying, and the fact that the villains are so extraordinarily evil makes their downfall that much more fun to watch.

There are a couple of missteps, though.  Mainly these surround the Boss Henchmen, who are a bit out of place.  They are colorful and weird dudes; one of them basically walked out of Desperado and another is a giant, sailor-costumed freak.  In a cartoon world, they would be interesting nemeses with fun trademark moves and catchphrases.  But The Punisher is a dark and gray world; any colorful characters who enter it just seem like they walked into the wrong movie.

Then you have the other inhabitants of Frank's halfway house, who are meant to be comic relief, but aren't really all that funny.  I don't mind them quite as much, though - in a movie this bleak, it's nice to have a couple of folks who are just... y'know... normal.

Those are minor complaints in the long run.  This is largely a movie about Frank seeking revenge, and goddamn if he doesn't find it.

The Part Where I Write About Revenge (Again)

If you read my blog forever ago (translation: last year), you might recall that I whined a bit about Paul Kersey's character from the film Death Wish and later followed that up with more discussion of revenge movies in general.  To recap: revenge movies pretty much all fall into one of two categories.  You either have the dread-inducing, grim, soul-crushing movies that show revenge for the empty pursuit it actually is, or you have crazy, over-the-top power fantasies that play out like Republican porn.

I'm fine with either path.  I just hate it when a movie gets confused about which one it's choosing.

Death Wish bothered me because, despite being an action movie, its central protagonist is a goddamn coward who shoots people in the back for relatively mundane crimes and who never actually takes down the people who initially wronged him.  Is it a meditation on the amorality of revenge, or is it a power fantasy?  As it turns out, it's not really much of either one.  The villains aren't particularly threatening except for one especially disgusting and vile scene, and those specific villains are never seen again.

The Punisher, by contrast, knows exactly what it's trying to do and never steers away from that goal.  It's 100% power fantasy, manipulating you as the viewer in every possible way and giving you exactly what you want.  It is the closest non-sexual analogue to pornography I can think of; every scene is dripping with base id fulfillment in a way that might make you feel a little bit ashamed of yourself.  It is to anger what the Food Network is to gluttony.

Is it healthy?  Hell no - this is the kind of film that should be kept far away from children and imbeciles.  But is it fun?  Absolutely.  You want to live vicariously through a tough motherfucker who won't take crap from anyone?  Watch The Punisher.  You want to watch a (fictitious) guy with no hope take on a seemingly unconquerable monolith and come out on top?  Watch The Punisher.

Want to watch something understated and sympathetic to the plight of the poor and minorities in the the context of institutionalized racism, accessible drug trade, and corrupt police officers?  ...okay, you have me there.  The Punisher is unapologetically two-dimensional, but that's not really the point of this one.

It's a film of excess.  In most revenge movies, the protagonist's brother or wife or father or best friend or dog gets killed, and then s/he decides to grab a gun and get to work.  But that's not enough for The Punisher.  No, the instigating event is that Frank's entire family is murdered.  Not just "his wife and kids."  No, his entire family.  Literally all of the Castles.  His wife, his son, his parents, his grandparents, his cousins, his cousins' spouses, his cousins' spouses' nephew who heard there was a party and wanted to check it out.

And Frank, in turn, decides to get the worst possible revenge he can think of.  Not just "Guess I'll shoot a couple of assholes in the back."  No, he goes about systematically destroying Howard Saint's life, piece by piece, day by day, putting the fear of inevitable total destruction into the bottom of his black heart until he realizes that not a single shred of the Saint dynasty will ever, ever, ever survive another nanosecond on this planet.

It's not just a revenge story.  It is a holocaust on the scale of a single man.  It is the only movie I know of where a guy is determined to wipe out every possible facet of another man's existence.

I admire its purity.  Not many movies just say, "Fuck it, I'm going all the way" like this one.  As long as you can keep your head straight, and as long as you're in the market for what it's selling, I think you'll enjoy it.

The Part Where I Wonder at the Film's Legacy

I often think about things in terms of a film historian's perspective forty years from now.  When I'm an old man, what will people think and say about a movie I watched in college?  Will its existence be completely forgotten about by then?  Will popular opinion reverse?  Will it be revived through midnight screenings?  Will it ever be studied in any academic sense as closely as we scrutinize an Elizabethan drama?

I don't have the benefit of that perspective, so I'll have to be careful at saying anything about a movie's legacy.  All the same, I'd like to think that The Punisher will one day be held up as the last "inherently bad" comic book movie.  Let me explain.

I've not made much of a secret of my contempt for superheroes.  The very idea is flawed at its core; once you give somebody a force of magic strength, you've dulled your capacity for tension.  Yet I still enjoy a well-made superhero movie once in awhile and I respect that people look forward them.

The thing is, I remember a day when my attitude was the norm.  Superheroes were just a silly thing to make a movie out of, and by extension, so were comic books.  Every comic book franchise was expected to gravitate toward overblown bravado and glitter at some point.  Even the original Superman, widely considered one of the greatest comic book movies, was ridiculously campy.  People just didn't take superheroes seriously.  How could you?

Today?  You can't escape 'em.  Superhero movies are a legit source for adaptations.  And we take them seriously, too.  We actually complained when The Dark Knight didn't get nominated for Best Picture, for Christ's sake.  As a society, we've only recently come around to comic books in a major way.

Sure, there was kind of a boom in the '90s, but that barely registered; most of those films were either capitalizing on a then-running TV show or they were failed experiments.  And sure, you can point to certain early successes of the '00s like Spider-Man or Batman Begins as kicking off the trend.  There were a handful of well-made and engaging comic book movies that helped to turn the tide.  But I think that only tells half the story.

I think we, as a society, needed to purge ourselves of a deep-seated resentment of comic book sensibilities.  We had to go through a sort of shock treatment, a kind of filmic ipecac to get rid of all the bile we reserved specifically for the subgenre.

Enter The Punisher.  It was a dark, gritty, comparatively-realistic take on a comic book that was trying to break our expectations of what a comic book movie should be.  It wasn't even about a superhero; Frank Castle's just a guy who's really, really pissed off.

But we weren't ready to let go of our prejudices yet.  We complained and railed and whined about it and said it was stupid... and by the time we were done, we were so exhausted that we were all too happy to sign up for 300Sin City, and, of course, The Dark Knight.  These are all films that did the exact same "dark and gritty" schtick, but all were met with accolades even though they're every bit as silly and over the top.

The Punisher is not a bad movie.  It just happened to be the sacrificial lamb we all needed to get on board with comic books.  It's a pity; I wish we could have spent all that aggression on X-Men: The Last Stand instead.

The Punisher goes in and out of Netflix's Watch Now rotation, but if you don't want to wait, you can buy a copy for pretty cheap at Amazon.