HAMLET is a tragedy about a man who cant make up his mind about taking action. The resulting exposition of his inner struggle produced some of the finest poetry in the English language. On a much diminished, but no less agonizing scale, THE PUNISHER is a tragedy about a film that can’t make up its mind about what sort of story it wants to be. The result is not poetry, but instead a wildly frustrating excursion into the land of Marvel comics that veers precipitously between being a low-rent crime potboiler and a snazzy live action version of a interestingly conflicted character Frank Castle, a.k.a. THE PUNISHER, a guy who skirts amorality as he strives for justice.
That would be natural justice as opposed to the vengeance we might expect from a guy who has had his whole family wiped out during an idyllic beachside reunion. The perpetrator is Howard Saint (John Travolta), the typical Florida kingpin dealing in vice and money laundering. A sting operation Castle spearheaded took out one of Saint’s sons, who was there sightseeing, as it were. Saint would have been happy with just Castle’s head, but his lovely and vicious wife Livia (Laura Harring), wants a bloodbath and since Saint is putty in Livia’s hands, we have a premise and the birth of a new action hero.
If only director/co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh had kept things squarely in the graphic novel conceit, with a hyper reality playing off Castle’s mordant humor and his drive that lets him take a bullet to the chest and keep on going. When it’s just Castle or even Castle and the band of misfits and outcasts that occupy the tumbledown tenement he’s transformed into his fortress of solitude, there is that glimmer of what made someone somewhere say, ”Hey, this would make a great movie”. He is brooding, stalwart, with a chin that screams determination, the misfits are two nerds, one pierced, one pudgy, and the other a recovering addict waitress with a heart of gold and killer looks (Rebecca Romijn no longer Stamos). The film is at its best, character-wise, when they try to bring Castle back into the human fold when he’d much prefer to crawl into a bottle between bouts of payback. Romijn has a worldly wise sweetness to her that is neither coy nor airheaded, though why the wardrobe department swathed the supermodel’s supernatural body in a dress that makes her look squat is something I cannot fathom. Jane has the right edge for Castle’s more piquant weapons of choice, be it psychological mind games that deliver deliciously poetic justice, or his novel uses for everyday food items. That Hensleigh includes many shots of Castle working at his tool bench, shirtless in low-slung jeans with the camera on the gun or knife in questions mere inches from a well-honed set of abs, and one of the nicest-looking navels working in films today, is a thoughtful bonus.
It”s when the crime lord stuff is brought in that things bog down into banality. Travolta is playing the character that he did in PULP FICTION, as if the small-time hood time had gotten a break into the big time along with that Royale. He sulks, he mopes, he mugs, he does anything but take the proceedings with the seriousness, even when carving people up, that would make his villainy work. Throw in a couple of Cubans who are annoyed by how Castle has messed up Saint’s side of their dealings, and you pretty much have a generic episode of Miami Vice, albeit in Tampa, right down to the glass and chrome nightclub where Saint does his nefarious business. This is why when the strictly comic book villains pop up, they’re jarring. The mountainous Russian isn’t so bad, taking Castle’s apartment apart while never mussing his sculpted blond locks or much dirtying his red-and-white striped t-shirt. But Harry Heck, well, tha’ts another matter. Perhaps on the printed page of the comic and of the script, a ferrety looking Elvis type serenading his victims with a newly composed ditty works. On screen, it evoked a stunned response not only in the film’s participants, but also in the audience.
This brings up another problem, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink that the filmmakers have adopted. At 124 minutes, it plods. There is too much time on the set up, showing Castle with his schmaltzy Ozzie-and-Harriet family life before we get down to the uber-violence with which the film is punctuated. (Let’s just say the reverse-piercing sequence will give many viewers pause about another visit to the piercing parlor.) Theres the Harry Heck sequence, and theres a dozen or more snippet-like scenes that could have found a good home on the cutting room floor, leaving the flick to scamper along to its suitably explosive ending. And yet, sinfully short shrift was paid to the island magic performed by a mysterious island loner after Castle’s run-in with his family’s assassins, the magic that brought him back from the brink of otherwise certain death. It’s alluded to, but never explored. Darn.
THE PUNISHER had so much potential. When it’s good, which is rarely, its a kitschy delight exploring the wilder shores of nihilism and true love. When it’s bad, though, yikes. Even boasting what must be the most cars blown up in any one film this century can’t get me excited over this latest franchise bid.