Undercover FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is planning to quit the field and move to London with his wife and son. But his final sting goes awry, leading to the death of Bobby Saint (James Carpinello), the son of wealthy and corrupt businessman Howard Saint (John Travolta). Saint and his wife Livia (Laura Harring) revenge themselves by ordering the death of Castle and his entire family. Castle alone survives the massacre and, realising the law cannot help him, sets out to revenge himself on those who have destroyed his life.
Review by Jake Wilson:
For those who felt the Kill Bill saga was just too soft-hearted, real cinematic bloodlust is on display in The Punisher, a true study in the pathology of sadism that’s also one of the best action films in years. This is a story about a guy who sees his entire extended family massacred and his wife and child run down before his eyes, before being beaten, shot, stabbed and thrown off a burning pier. When he returns from the dead, we expect bloody revenge, and the writer-director, Jonathan Hensleigh, doesn’t disappoint. As a sado-masochistic scenario this nearly but not quite tops The Passion of The Christ, though Hensleigh shows little of Mel Gibson’s righteous faith: as the hero aptly notes, “God’s gonna sit this one out.”
Maybe in world-historical terms, this is the wrong moment for a Hollywood film that plays the torture of minor characters for laughs. Or maybe it’s just perfect. Either way, Hensleigh – an experienced screenwriter who knows the action genre like the back of his hand – has clearly thought carefully about what he’s doing. His approach owes less to the weightless digital hijinks of The Matrix trilogy or the MTV editing of Michael Bay than to John Boorman’s bizarre 1967 revenge thriller Point Blank, with outrageous events presented in a “gritty” yet operatic first-person style that verges on cryptic self-parody.
As in Boorman’s film or the original Dirty Harry, moral relativism rules the day (the “humanist” scenes where the Punisher bonds with a gang of outcast freaks register as purely sarcastic). A bland monolith who delivers cheesy one-liners like a WASP edition of Sylvester Stallone, Thomas Jane is consistently upstaged by his equally amoral but far more glamorous antagonists.
As the driving force of this Nietzschian power couple, Laura Harring is somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Morticia Addams, while in one of his wittiest performances, Travolta plays Howard Saint like a corrupt duke out of Jacobean tragedy, a figure of suave abstracted cruelty. For all its flippancy, that’s the artistic territory where The Punisher makes its mark: there’s a grim satisfaction as one horror is followed by another, but redemption is nowhere in sight.
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PUNISHER, THE (MA)
CAST: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romin-Stamos, Laura Harring, Samantha Mathis
PRODUCER: Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Hensleigh
SCRIPT: Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Conrad W. Hall
EDITOR: Steven Kemper
MUSIC: Carlo Siliotto
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michael Z. Hanan
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 3, 2004
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