The Punisher

Year: 2004
Studio: Columbia
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Cast: Tom Jane, John Travolta, Roy Scheider, Samantha Mathis, Laura Harring, Will Patton
What does this latest in Hollywood's tediously long line of comic book adaptations have to do with sharks?

Absolutely nothing. But in an unrelated piece of trivia, Roy Scheider pops up as Frank Castle's (the man who will become The Punisher) father. Those over 30 will recognise him as Chief Brody from Jaws (1976).

And the last time we saw Tom Jane in a film was in 1999's Renny Harlin-directed high concept turkey Deep Blue Sea, where he was the hero leading a small band of survivors through an undersea lab terrorised by genetically mutated sharks.

Unfortunately, that piece of trivia is one of the most interesting things The Punisher has to offer.

From the more recent stock of Marvel comic book heroes where it isn't all Truth, Justice and the American Way, The Punisher is a dark, violent story about a former FBI special forces agent whose family has been wiped out as a reprisal for the death of a mafia kingpin's son in a sting gone wrong.

Adopting his trademark, he surrounds himself with cyberpunk weaponry and a muscle car and goes on a rampage of vengeance... sorry, punishment.

In a voiceover during his preparation for the final assault (which includes the blowing up of about forty cars for no apparent reason), the hero actually sets you straight about what he's doing. It's not about revenge...

Although by that time you might have realised to yourself what a theme revenge is becoming in movies lately. From Troy to Kill Bill, the movie screen is awash with tales of violence begetting violence, like condensed versions of the history of the human race. Forget what you learnt in school kids, going into battle with a spear or a modified AK-47 to avenge the death of your kin is much more glorious - especially if you can do it with a cool sign on your T shirt and rippling muscles.

As a movie, The Punisher repeatedly shows promise of being a cut above the carbon-copied formulae we usually get from both action movies and comic book adaptations (not mentioning any names, Ben Affleck). It looks like it's truly going to be as dark and anti-establishment as all the advertising promises.

But instead it fumbles the ball every time, stumbling into cheap comic relief gags (courtesy of The Punisher's collection of goofy neighbours), standard action movie fixtures, the worst cornball dialogue in years (Extra; 'God be with you' Hero; 'God's going to sit this one out') and at times quite confronting violence that frequently turns unnecessarily nasty.

Because of such disparate elements, the whole thing falls on its face with no sense of purpose, no cohesion in the tone of the story, and no idea if it wants to be a comic book with funny wisecracks or a dramatic action movie with a cool T shirt.

At times, Castle's a one-man army of blazing weaponry, at other times he's a strategist by stealth, employing a protracted scheme to trick the villain into doing his work for him. But neither seem to fit his character because we never get a clear picture of who his character is, just an amphorous image of this guy who's going to become some underground vigilante.

Tom Jane has (perhaps predictably) not improved since the chiseled, snarling he-man he portrayed in Deep Blue Sea, chewing over The Punisher's screwball one liners and succeeding only in looking moody and tough.

John Travolta gives a lazy, faxed-in performance, falling back into the same off-the-rack villain suit he wore in Swordfish, the only difference being he looks like he's having no fun at all this time.

The casting of Jane in the lead role and the presence behind the megaphone of Hensleigh (who, after a career as a screenwriter co-wrote this, his directorial debut) is somewhat telling of the studio's intentions for The Punisher. Maybe it was just for enough small change to keep Sony's offices in fresh coffee until Spider-Man 2 comes out in July.

After spending enough to get John Travolta and Rebecca Romijn Stamos (who's asking price is on the up thanks to the X-Men franchise) and paying the pyrotechnics bill, they weren't going to waste more money for a name director and an A-list lead in a movie they know be on the radar much past it's first weekend.

Either way, sitting through The Punisher is punishment enough. Come back, Dolph Lundgren, all is forgiven!

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