If I had to pick a favourite character from one of the big two comic companies, it’d be the Punisher. He’s Frank Castle, a former soldier whose family was killed by the Mafia during a shootout; he hardens his heart, cuts off almost all human contact and becomes the Punisher, brutally murdering first his family’s killers, then appointing himself a one-man vigilante army and taking on every sort of crime family and operation there is (and the occasional supervillain too).
Actually, I’m more a fan of writer Garth Ennis’ take on him than something specific about the character – other, lesser writers have turned him into a supernatural angel of vengeance, or a Frankenstein’s Monster, or had him team up with a family-friendly superhero. But writer Stephen Grant sums him up perfectly:
“Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard’s philosophy further, comes even closer to describing The Punisher: since we can never hope to understand why we’re here, if there’s even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action. That’s the Punisher: a man who knows he’s going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.”
The absolute relentlessness of Ennis’ Punisher is what I loved (and why most “normal” superheroes bore me to tears). If you’ve ever read a Batman comic where the Joker escapes Arkham Asylum, again, and just thought “it would save a heck of a lot of time and lives if Batman just killed him” then the Punisher is the comic for you.
I’ve spent the best part of 300 words talking about things other than tonight’s movie, which is the second of three (so far) big-screen versions of the character (he’s also showed up in the “Daredevil” TV series). We’ve got a 1989 movie with Dolph Lundgren which we’ll be covering in the next few days, and one from 2008, directed by Lexi Alexander, an absolutely extraordinary piece of work. But let’s talk Thomas Jane.
Jane is just about perfect for the part, an exact physical fit and a decent actor. Marvel had been pursuing him for some time but he wasn’t interested in being a superhero, although when they sent him some Punisher artwork he became interested (and a fan of the character in the process). Because he’s not a sad mass-murderer for the entire running time, he has to convince as a decent family man and a vigilante who decent citizens would like; Jane is great at all that. The extended cut is fairly long (well over 2 hours) and he doesn’t pick up his iconic death’s-head t-shirt til 45 minutes or so. I think the introduction of the shirt – given to him by his son as a totem to ward off bad spirits, bought from a street vendor in Puerto Rico – is perhaps the cheesiest decision the movie makes.
Castle’s undercover work leads to the death of Bobby, the son of crime boss / money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta, also excellent). Saint is less than thrilled by this, so when he discovers that the man who killed Bobby is still alive, he orders a hit on him – Bobby’s grieving mother Livia (Laura Harring, “Silent Night Deadly Night 3”) demands that his entire family is killed too. Frank is the sole survivor of the huge family party in Puerto Rico, somewhat implausibly (he’s shot several times, including one to the chest, and the only medical attention he gets is from a friendly local), so he loads up on guns and moves into a fairly squalid apartment block in Tampa Bay, with punishment on his mind.
I’ve often complained about extremely long intros to superhero movies, and how no-one cares about what happened before they put the cape on, but this is different for two reasons. One – it’s good, well-written and interesting; and two – the Punisher isn’t really a superhero, he’s just a man pushed far far over the edge, with an extraordinary set of skills, who happens to exist in the same world as superheroes; although there’s no mention of any other Marvel characters in this movie.
There’s an odd tonal element to this movie, which I think actually makes it better, but its low rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates was not universally popular. It’s the combination of an extremely dark vigilante movie with the slight campness of the world of comics. Two of the assassins sent by Saint to finish off the Punisher, as he’s killing Saint’s men and ruining his business, are Harry Heck, who composes him a song telling him he’s going to die, and “The Russian” (pro wrestler Kevin Nash) who slams him through walls, while wearing a ridiculous tight red-and-white t-shirt and blond buzz-cut. They’re straight out of the comics and present a tough match when it comes to a man driven to murder out of grief, but I think it works.
Frank also has a few friendships, from the neighbours in his apartment block, who form a little family. Bumpo (grotesquely fat in the comics, just a chubby guy here); the charmingly named Spacker Dave (Ben Foster); and Joan (Rebecca Romijn), who’s as close to a love interest as a character as damaged as the Punisher can handle. This family element is interesting, I think, and helps humanise a character who could just be an automaton – but I can see how people expecting relentless darkness might have been thrown by it. And vice versa, I suppose. The Punisher’s not just a killer, and the way he takes down Saint’s business and gets him to do some of the dirty work through manipulation and subterfuge is pretty darned clever.
“Go with God”. “God’s gonna sit this one out”. While I prefer the 2008 version to this one, there’s not a lot in it, and I wish Jane had continued in the role, as he apparently wanted to do (there’s even a 2011 “fan film” with him reprising the role, co-starring Ron Perlman). It was something of a box-office failure, but a strong showing on DVD meant that there were plans for a sequel, but they kept falling through until both writer / director Jonathan Hensleigh and Jane left the project in 2007. Everything after that is a story for our review of “Punisher: War Zone”.
I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t a huge success – tonal shifts, lots of stereotypes in the bit part characters, a bit on the long side – but it’s completely entertaining and I maintain hope that Jane, now a decent fit for the Punisher at the end of his career, will be brought back for another movie (while realising that it’s pretty unlikely). I admire that Marvel, a company happier with colourful characters having easily solvable problems, is prepared to make big movies about a guy driven to become a brutal vigilante through grief, a life where it never gets any better or easier for him, with no end (because there will be no end to crime under capitalism) and no redemption.
Rating: thumbs up