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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Movie review: The Punisher **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Can we just say it, that this is the most violent year in mainstream multiplex-going America in at least two decades? We've already had The Passion of the Christ, Dawn of the Dead, and Walking Tall, and it's only April. But this week's ultra-violent lashing really threw me, and I'm not talking about the comparatively thoughtful Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

No, in the new comic book movie The Punisher, the image I can't quite shake is of a man being dragged to his death behind a car. The Punisher, the good guy, ties the bad guy to the bumper. The Punisher apparently understands something about no-fault homicide that the rest of us don't. See, he never actually kills the man himself, with his hands or big guns, which he has enough of to supply an overthrow of Haiti. Or at least Connecticut.

This Punisher kills, yes. But his understanding of the difference between homicide and justice is flexible. "Not vengeance," he growls. "Punishment." As if the two were mutually exclusive. But then sociopaths like to make justifications, and the Punisher's entire bag is stuffed with similar logic; he has this whole other speech of justifications about the uselessness of going to the "proper authorities" in certain nasty instances.

He pulls the trigger on occasion, no question. But his innovation is turning enemies against enemies. He gets a husband to kill a wife, a best friend to kill a best friend; he blackmails an assassin with evidence of the man's homosexuality; and he even straps one adversary to a car bumper, throws it into drive, jumps out, and then watches as the car glides into a parking lot, and explodes all on its own.

Look ma, no bloody hands?

Not quite.

The victim of the car-dragging surely deserved it: He ordered the assassination of the Punisher's entire family - at a cute reunion straight out of a Lands End catalog, no less. And besides, without that massacre we wouldn't have the Punisher to punish people who had it coming. Every superhero needs an origin, and this guy's isn't much different than the crime that created Batman or Spider-Man.

It's just rougher.

The plot: Former FBI man Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) tracks down the generic movie killers who slaughtered his equally generic movie clan. He's working One Last Bust Before Retirement when he kills the son of an evil Tampa money launderer (John Travolta), and the retaliation on Castle's family proves harsh. He's left for dead, pulverized and heartbroken. But get this: he's found by a witch doctor, nursed back to health, then he moves to ... Tampa. Not quite Gotham City, but then it is Florida, where hanging chads and road-raging retirees threaten.

Castle sets up shop in a dingy apartment, next door to a super model (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and two comic book geeks (a backhanded shout-out to the demographic that made this movie possible). He arms himself to the teeth, and, like Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies, makes a list of the people to kill and checks it twice. The rest is one of those movies where a gunfight rages in the foreground while a huge sign sits in the back ground advertising "Fuel Dock."

I read the comic book as a kid, and perhaps memories of that Punisher floated into my mind's eye as I watched this generally faithful adaptation, But rather than nostalgia, something like hindsight kicked in. The Punisher was a superhero for comic book fans who didn't have time for sissy masks and flying wings, or the selflessness of altruism. He's the lazy man's Superman.

Never much of a marvel, he came out of Marvel Comics in 1974, at a time when vigilante heroes like Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson had redefined the fed-up anti-hero. On the page at least, he wore a dark blue spandex body suit with a skull on his chest. He was a former Special Forces soldier with a Daredevil-y ability to flip and swish across roofs; vague references to his Vietnam experience floated up on occasion; but his soul partner (and former nemesis) was no less than friendly guy Spider-Man.

The movie finds him more grounded. His nemesis is John Travolta, applying for membership in Al Pacino's Over-the-Top Gang, complete with camp self-consciousness, in a cheap role more in line with his pre-Pulp Fiction comeback. He's an accessible supervillain. The Punisher knows where he lives but waits until the third act to visit, which is proper superhero etiquette. This Punisher also forgoes spandex and gymnastics: he takes his cue from the newer Garth Ennis-penned Punisher comics, and opts for a trench coat and a Megadeath T-shirt.

But he has no mask. No super powers. No secret lair.

Just an arsenal and an old-fashioned grudge.

Which pretty much defines the heroes of dozens of Schwarzenegger and Stallone and Chuck Norris and now Rock films. Pick a movie, virtually any movie in the past 30 years that involves guns and a one-man killing squad, and you could rename it The Punisher and the title fits. Indeed, there's a Punisher with Dolph Lundgren from 1989 that's not as fun as this cheap thrill, but just as earthbound.

Call the Guy in Memphis, Travolta tell his cronies when the Punisher acts out. The Guy in Memphis shows up where the Punisher is finishing his omelet.

Send in the Russian, Travolta demands when the Guy in Memphis doesn't work out. The Russian knocks on the Punisher's front door and they tussle and knock down walls and proceed to transform Section 8 housing into something on the order of a lovely crumbling Tuscan abode.

What makes The Punisher slightly more than trash is, well, the punishment part. First-time director Jonathan Hensleigh has some fun laying out the nasty path the Punisher takes before his final vengen- er, punishment. He steals the bad guys' cars and parks them in handicapped spaces. He throws their money out the window to strangers. You're waiting for him to call their evil lair and ask if they have Prince Edward in a can and then hang up and giggle, or fill out subscription cards in their name for CosmoTeen and drop them in the mail; but Jane is a brooder, Batman without the inventions or playboy lifestyle.

He drinks a lot, contemplates suicide, and even worse, he never buys any decent furniture.

That's how torn up he is.

There's something laudable about a revenge film that goes out of its way to give us a portrait of a man who gets no real satisfaction from violence. There's also something deeply hypocritical about it. Post-9/11 movie audiences practically vibrate with blood lust. And when The Punisher works, it appeals to this vigilantism. We want to see an eye for an eye, and then some. Images of the war in Iraq are so generally sanitized, we could use more movies that make sense of violence, and our reactions to it, but the Punisher is not quite Ted Koppel.

He might have a death wish, but I have my own wish: Dude, next time you go after a villain, get an unlisted number.



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