The Punisher was one of the most atypical of the featured characters in the Marvel Comics stable, and for that reason all the more interesting. He didn’t have super-powers, and he didn’t have a lofty ethical code, either; he was a dispossessed vigilante out to destroy criminals in the wake of the death of his family. His chief attribute was his unquenchable anger, and he channeled that into his one-man war against crime. The filmed version of The Punisher, in its own underhanded way, actually dares to ask us whether or not putting on a costume and turning into a vigilante is really all that morally justifiable
The way it does this is by doing something few movies are capable of doing well: pushing our buttons calculatedly. You can watch it as the pulp-action thriller it was designed as, sure, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find something else going on. Someone once said about a book of Harlan Ellison’s, “Even while it’s slamming you into a wall, it’s tickling your ribs,” and I thought of that quote often while watching this film. The movie takes some minor liberties with the character’s origins, but his motives are the same. If anything, the movie does something the comics didn’t do, at least not at first: hold a mirror up to our expectations about vigilante anti-heroes.
I lived in New York City long enough to understand why there is a cultural fascination with vigilante anti-heroes. When Bernhard Goetz gunned down four black kids who were ostensibly trying to mug him on a subway train, there was no middle ground in the minds of many people: either Goetz was simply protecting himself against youth run wild, or Goetz was a violent sociopath who should be in prison for putting one of the kids in a wheelchair for life. Curtis Sliwa (leader of the neighborhood-watch group Guardian Angels) praised Goetz for fighting back, but since then we have been culturally conditioned to believe that we can solve social problems by whipping out a gun and blowing away the right bad guy. The Punisher shows us someone who does exactly that, but at the cost of his own spirit: dare we cheer him on?
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, whom you may remember from 61* and Deep Blue Sea) plays an undercover FBI officer whose last sting operation ends with the death of the son of the powerful and wealthy Howard Saint (John Travolta). Right away, though, the movie starts slipping in subtle hints that it’s operating on more than one level. Castle’s response to the man’s death is virtually nonexistent: he’s more interested in making a getaway to London with his family. He loves his wife and son dearly, even though his work has shortchanged them of him, so moving to a desk job will be for the best.
It never happens. A grieving and pained Saint (goaded on by his wife, Livia) sends a cadre of hitmen—including his other son—to not only kill Castle but his whole family. This they do in a scene of appalling violence that manages to stand apart from the rest of the movie without seeming inconsistent. It’s frightening and realistic, and when it’s all over Castle is the only one left alive. He scavenges his son’s last gift from the ruins—a skull-design T-shirt—and heads back to Florida, where he goes underground to begin his campaign of revenge. He does not want to kill Saint outright. That's too easy, and anyone who’s seen more than a few revenge thrillers of their own will know this.
That said, this is where the movie begins—subtly at first and then not so subtly—to detour into jet-black comedy and pulp-fantasy territory as a way of commenting on its own subject. Castle hides out in a crumbling apartment building with a trio of losers as neighbors: two social rejects, Bumpo and Spacker Dave, and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a waitress with the worst possible taste in men and a history of alcoholism. They try, hesitantly and in some ways actually quite touchingly, to include him in their circle, and to show Castle that even he’s not totally lost to the world. Castle doesn’t know how to respond except by drowning himself in Wild Turkey during the day, hiding in his workshop full of weapons in the afternoon, and sneaking out at night to engineer Saint’s destruction.
Saint is anything but. He runs local legitimate businesses as a front for a money-laundering operation with Cuban connections, plays yes-man to his wife (whose idea of a nice anniversary gift is the death of the man who killed their son), and has his life managed down to the last detail. Castle exploits all three of these things in ways that work like an urban-legend version of the Punisher mythos: See what happens to people who aren’t nice? There’s also a moment that reminded me of a similar tactic in the also darkly funny The Man Who Stole the Sun, where Castle scatters money in public to distract all and sundry just before gunning down two of his family’s assassins in a building lobby. There is irony in that Castle has been chiseling into the one part of Saint’s assets that aren’t disposable: his reputation and his standing with his business compatriots.
The movie has three tones: straight realism, gutpunch violence, and dark comedy. Somehow they all work in concert, sometimes one right after the other. One of the best such moments comes when Castle’s neighbors try to bring him over for dinner (he’s rather ashamed to join them, actually), and then enjoy themselves with an Italian opera playing while Frank gets his clock cleaned by a massive Russian bruiser (wrestler Kevin Nash). The contrast between the two is funny, but it’s also rather pointed—especially when his arsenal of hidden weapons all backfire badly, and he has to resort to something very, er, low-tech to get out of trouble. I also liked a walk-on by a hitman named Harry Heck who seemed to be channeling Johnny Cash (even if his screentime was way too short). [As it turns out, the actor playing Harry Heck, Mark Collie, is a C&W singer who was tapped to play Cash in a short film, I Still Miss Someone.]
It’s the little touches in the movie that add up and point towards what it’s really about. One of the best and most telling is when Castle strings up a man and tortures him, in a way that’s as big a deception for the audience as it is for the guy being tortured. That clued me in onto the movie’s real mission: to use the way thrillers manipulate an audience to make us think about the larger significance of Castle’s mission. What is it that justifies a man like that? His audience, and the movie subtly indicts the audience (far more effectively, in my opinion, than Ichi the Killer tried to do under the helmsmanship of Takashi Miike) for cheering Castle on. The movie knows better, but does the audience? And then there are the bits of throwaway humor that actually aren’t that throwaway, like when Saint delivers an ominous little speech about Jim Bowie as a prelude to a revenge of his own.
The interesting thing about The Punisher is how it’s quite willing to stick its neck out and be hated for trying to combine an audience-pleasing revenge thriller with a darker statement about its material. The critical drubbing the movie received reminded me of the way films like Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil were also dog-piled when they first came out. It wasn’t the movie people really hated; it was just that no one wanted to be caught dead saying they liked it for all the wrong reasons. The same seems to apply here, especially in a coda that’s actually even bleaker the more you think about it. And then there were people who hated it because it did not adhere to the Punisher mythos letter-for-letter, which is just silly. In its own twisted, black little way, this may turn out to be one of the most thought-provoking and challenging movies of the year, an interesting pair-up with the similarly-themed Oldboy about the cost of revenge. Never thought I’d say that about a Marvel movie.
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