The Punishment Begins April 16, 2004
Running Time: 124 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18
Country: United States
Déjà vu is a funny thing. Blink and you would have missed Hollywood's first screen adaptation of Marvel Comic's 'The Punisher' way back in 1989, but now that a George Bush is in the White House again, the vigilante Frank Castle (who first emerged as a character in the 'Spiderman' comicbooks) is back with, er, a vengeance, still spouting the same nonsense about the difference between revenge and punishment even though it is clear for all to see that such fine distinctions never actually apply once this one-man army starts kicking some ass. He-man Dolph Lundgren, alas, does not return here as the Punisher, but at least the new avenger, Tom Jane, bears an uncanny resemblance to that other muscle-bound eighties throwback, Christopher Lambert. It is almost as if the Bill Clinton years never happened – something which those who really like this film will no doubt wish were true.
When the son of ruthless Florida money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta) is killed in an undercover sting headed by FBI agent Frank Castle (Jane), a gang of Saint's henchmen guns down Castle's entire family, runs over his wife and son à la 'Mad Max', and leaves Castle himself for dead with a bullet in his chest. Months later, Castle rises again like some latter day gun-toting Jesus, and a nastily elegant plot unfolds in which he sets his would-be killers against one another, while fending off a couple of ludicrous assassins-for-hire.
The ideology underlying this film is clear as day. There are, you see, folks out there who are just plain evil (gay, even), and sometimes you must go outside the law to stop them – even if that means the odd excruciating interrogation or extra-judicial massacre (with the emphasis on prolonged pain). Of course, such uncomfortably simplistic, highly reactionary attitudes to crime and punishment chime well with the policies of the current US administration at home (the Patriots' Act) and abroad (Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib – or the whole of Iraq, for that matter, collectively 'punished' for crimes committed by non-Iraqis). In this film, death is unquestionably deserved (unless you happen to be a Castle), torture is both justified (unless you happen to be a friend of Castle) and made to look funny (just remember those smiles in the Abu Ghraib photos), and the man who kills and kills again is the hero – and if there were any doubt of a link between Castle's urban vigilantism and the US War on Terror, in one scene it is stated that Castle's special expertise derives from his work in the Counter-Terrorism Unit (even though his methods, upon reflection, seem more like those of Terrorism, pure and simple). Apparently it never occurs to Castle to testify in a court of law against those who killed his family, and tried to kill him. Nope, this rugged individualist prefers to do things his way, the old fashioned cowboy way, and to play at being judge, jury and executioner despite the fact that the state of Florida could not be said to have elected him. Déjà vu.
On top of all this, every character besides Castle himself seems underdeveloped (despite the film being over two hours) – and John Travolta does not get to dance even once.
It's Got: Both of John Travoltas facial expressions; a guitar-playing assassin (Mark Collie) who serenades his victims with menacing country songs; the coincidence of the hero being shown his fathers extensive gun collection just as a gang of thugs arrives to kill him; the sight of Roy Scheider (as Frank Castle Sr.) on a beach with nary a sharks fin in sight.
It Needs: A more nuanced view of the dynamics of revenge (as in Old Boy, Hero or even Ichi the Killer or the Kill Bill films) - and better developed characters. In fact, any subtlety at all might have helped.
This reactionary revenger will bring real satisfaction to fans of Bush's foreign policy – but probably not to anybody else.