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MOVIE REVIEW
'Punisher' delivers uneasy
mix of drama, dark humor


April 22, 2004
By Franklin Harris

The highlight of "The Punisher" is a long, brutal fight scene between the title character, aka ex-FBI agent Frank Castle, and a mute hit man known simply as The Russian. The film has other moments like it, but "The Punisher" amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Thomas Jane stars in ''The Punisher.''
© Copyright Lions Gate Films
Thomas Jane stars in ''The Punisher.''
Castle (Thomas Jane) is ready to leave his high-risk job as an FBI field agent and settle behind a nice, cozy desk at the bureau's London office. But first he has one last assignment, which involves an illegal arms shipment and the son of a powerful crime boss.

As everyone knows, any law enforcement officer's final mission before retirement or reassignment is destined to go wrong. It says so in the Hollywood municipal code.

What goes wrong is the crime boss' son dying accidentally. This is bad news because the crime boss, Howard Saint (John Travolta), and his wife (Laura Harring) subsequently order the revenge killings of Castle and his entire family. When Saint's men track down the Castles at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, a bloodbath ensues.

However improbably, Castle is the massacre's lone survivor, and while he recuperates, the police and the FBI do nothing to bring Saint to justice. So, Castle decides to take matters into his own hands. He moves into a run-down apartment building, assembles an arsenal and sets in motion a plan to destroy Saint, Saint's family and Saint's criminal empire.

It's not about revenge, Castle says. It's about punishment.

"The Punisher" is the latest movie based on a Marvel comic book. And apart from shifting the action from New York City to Tampa, Fla., and dropping Castle's Vietnam War connection, it is largely faithful to its source material. Actually, it may be too faithful.

The problem with "The Punisher" is that it can't successfully mix the tragic story of how Castle became The Punisher with the black humor of Marvel's recent "Punisher" comics, written by Garth Ennis ("Preacher").

The parts of the movie that work best are those drawn directly from or inspired by Ennis' work. These include Castle's fight with The Russian (pro wrestler Kevin Nash) and his confrontation with a Memphis hit man (Mark Collie) who looks and sounds a lot like Johnny Cash.

Unfortunately, too many of the serious moments fall flat, especially when they're reminiscent of un-ironic 1980s action flicks starring Chuck Norris.

The strong cast, however, tilts the balance in the movie's favor. Jane is entirely believable as Castle, even if he doesn't do much more than brood for most of the film. And Travolta, for once, plays a villain without hamming it up. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who is more impressive with each new role, is also good as Castle's next-door neighbor, a short-order waitress with bad taste in boyfriends.

Overall, "The Punisher" is a competent and entertaining action film. If it is vaguely unsatisfying at times, it's because it gives you the impression that it could have been more.

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