The Punisher
2004
Undercover FBI agent Frank Castle is devastated when his wife and children are murdered after witnessing a Mafia hit. So with nothing left to lose or to live for, Castle becomes "the Punisher" -- a one-man judge, jury and executioner.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

I grew up reading The Punisher. He may have debuted in 1974, but to me he hit his stride in the nineties, among other revenge-driven antiheroes like Spawn and the Crow. My generation (class of 1996) was one that fantasized about vengeance, whatever that said about our feelings of inferiority. The unhealthy kids took automatic weapons to school and shot up their classmates; the healthy kids, including me, read bloody comic-book escapism like this and got it out of our system.

Today I am surprised to see so many reviewers missing the point entirely. Roger Ebert in particular chastised the film at length for not having a lighter tone. It makes me wonder how many of them know what an antihero is. The Punisher is supposed to be a grim, cheerless character; his cold hatred never subsides and his morose war never ends. I fear that a lighter tone would send this character into nightmarish "Batman & Robin" territory, which nobody wants to see. "Scarface" it ain't, but revenge stories need to brood, not romp.

That's what I loved so much about this film: It very accurately captured the spirit of the Punisher comic books, funereal in the dialogue scenes and completely, mercilessly badass in the action scenes. Frank Castle doesn't dodge bullets, or fly, or do gravity-defying kung fu in slow motion. He's an old-fashioned action star; he shoots a hell of a lot of people and he blows a lot of shit up . When he is victorious, it is usually because of thorough planning. The movie accurately portrays him as an intelligent man, always advancing some internal monologue in his head, rarely speaking aloud. (I had worried the film would turn him into a grunting, ultra-macho super-soldier like Matthew McConaughey in "Reign of Fire.") It draws specific inspirations from the comics, transporting in Howard Saint and the Russian, and I recognized the popsicle-interrogation scene from Punisher War Zone #1, identical except that he used a wet bar of soap in the comics. The movie changes minor details -- New York becomes Tampa, Vietnam becomes the Persian Gulf, two children become one -- but it was essential to my enjoyment of this film that it was so faithful to the spirit of the comics, more so than it needed to be.

Uninitiated viewers may like it less, for that reason. I can only imagine that this film would come across as a mediocre shoot-em-up without a familiarity with the feel of the comics. We know that certain characters are doomed at the beginning, and the film seems to be rushing to get its first act over with; more anguish and more of a sense of loss would have been to the film's benefit, as would a less hokey guardian angel to nurse Castle back from death's door. I don't mind having a fat guy as the comic relief, but I do mind when every word out of his mouth and every apparent thought in his head involves food; some of us "lardasses" are actually capable of thinking about other things, especially when our lives are in danger.

With "Road to Perdition," I got to see my childhood hometown appear for one fleeting scene; here I get my current homehown for the entire picture. It was great to applaud with the rest of the audience when we got our first look at the Tampa skyline. I recognized locations: The diner where Joan waitressed was the Goody-Goody, the Windham Hotel was Wyndham Towers, and the "Cuban district" was Ybor City. All of the details felt right until the lengthy shot of the Punisher standing alone on an empty Sunshine Skyway bridge, a heavily-trafficked stretch of I-275 that I have never seen anywhere close to empty in more than a hundred trips over it. Overall, I was quite pleased with the portrayal of Tampa; certainly this makes up for the last film made here, "Cop & a Half." I am happy that the producers chose to make a movie in Tampa, and proud that it turned out to be a good one.

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