It's been a very busy decade for Marvel Comics, which has seen scores of its comic book series adapted for the big screen. What makes Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, different is that he has no superpowers; he's just a really angry dude in a tight T-shirt. But the result is a dark and dismal tale of revenge with just the right blend of drama, action and comedy.
FBI special agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is on his final assignment, after which he plans to retire and live happily ever after with his wife, Maria (Samantha Mathis), and their young son. But as any avid moviegoer knows, last assignments always go wrong: A sting operation to nab a contraband firearms dealer results in the unintended death of Bobby Saint, the son of Tampa Bay crime syndicate boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). The grieving Saint and his lovely wife Livia (Laura Herring), want the man responsible for their son's death to pay and use their underworld ties to carry out a massacre at a Castle family reunion. But unbeknownst to the Saints, Frank survives the carnage and launches a mission of blood vengeance. Sporting a black T-shirt printed with a white skull given to him by his son (to supposedly ward off evil spirits), Frank becomes The Punisher, with only one goal: To destroy Howard Saint and everything he stands for. Holed up in a dilapidated tenement, Frank meticulously plots on a perfect revenge scheme--and finds unlikely allies in his motley neighbors Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster) and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).
As with any comic book adaptation, the most important factor is how aptly the actor portrays the superhero, or in this case, antihero. Jane, who last appeared in Dreamcatcher but had a more memorable supporting role as a stringy cocaine addict in Boogie Nights, pumped up for the role of the Punisher, making him a good physical representation of the comic book character and a convincing military combatant. Travolta's performance as Frank's foe, Howard Saint, is slightly derivative of the Gabriel Shear character we saw in the 2001 actioner Swordfish: a cold-blooded, fanatical underworld villain. It's interesting to note that Howard Saint was not introduced in the comics but is an original character created for the big-screen adaptation. But the addition of Travolta to the cast brings much-needed bigwig star power to this otherwise lesser-known cast. Also introduced in the feature film are Frank's three neighbors, Mr. Bumpo (Pinette), Spacker Dave (Foster) and Joan (Romijn-Stamos). These three quirky outcasts add a bit of comic relief to an otherwise grim storyline, although the attempt at a love connection between Romijn-Stamos and Jane doesn't ignite any sparks. Look for an entertaining cameo appearance from professional wrestler Kevin ''Big Sexy'' Nash as ''The Russian,'' sent to reduce Frank to a pile of flesh and broken bones.
The Punisher has quite a few obstacles to overcome in order to be embraced by moviegoers, one of them being the 1989 straight-to-video version starring Dolph Lundgren, which was just absolutely terrible. Not only did Lundgren look nothing like the comic book version of the Punisher, but the film deviated too much from the original storyline. Writer Jonathan Hensleigh, who makes his feature directorial debut here, remains truer to the comic book's roots, not counting the addition of some new characters and the crafting of Frank as an FBI agent. These variations on the comic book work, however, and help make the story a more character driven one. One element that misses the mark, however, is the setting, sunny Tampa Bay, Fla. Although the Saint's waterfront mansion is appropriately seething with opulence, there is something ''off'' about a comic book story not set in Gotham, or some other menacing metropolis. But despite the Tampa boo-boo, Hensleigh's screenplay provides enough significant moments for moviegoers unfamiliar with The Punisher comic book franchise to latch onto and turns them into a pretty compelling story.
Director Jonathan Hensleigh's feature adaptation of the comic book super-antihero The Punisher has just the right mix of comic book poeticism, violence and comedy and the story is a compelling one, whether you are familiar with the comic book or not.