It’s not as easy to turn a comic book into a movie as you might think, even though comics and illustrated novels are closer to cinema in conception than any other art form. But as this second attempt to turn the story of comic hero The Punisher into a movie shows, translating tone and pacing from page to screen requires an understanding of both forms can be tricky. X-Men got it right. But this Punisher needs a time out.
Thomas Jane is square-jawed, recruiting- poster-handsome and most of all heroic undercover agent Frank Castle. The target in his last big case unexpectedly brings a friend along to the takedown, and when things go wrong, the friend is killed. It turns out he was the son of big-time bad guy Howard Saint (John Travolta), whose lady Macbeth-like wife orders the slaughter of Castle’s whole family, conveniently all vacationing together on an island. After much too much time on how wonderful it is that Castle is now going to live happily ever after with his too-perfect-to-make-it-into-the-second-reel wife (Samantha Mathis) and just-there-to-crank-up-the-guilt son, we then spend much too much time mowing down everyone Castle loves. Castle himself is attacked and badly wounded, but the explosion that is supposed to finish him off blows him to safety. Then a quick montage later he is a lean, mean revenge machine with a newly low and growly voice. He moves into a crummy apartment building and devotes all his time to drinking and orchestrating the destruction of everything Saint cares about.
But the problem is that it is orchestrated too much and too little. The revenge is too elaborate to be viscerally satisfying, slowing the story down. And it is not intricate enough to be intellectually satisfying, too dependent on a highly improbable chain of events all coming together at just the right moment for everything to work.
Jane gives Castle-turned-Punisher notes of desolation and hunger for justice, and he has what it takes to hold the screen. But Travolta’s villain is never more than a posturing despot. John Pinette, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and Ben Foster are appealing but superfluous as neighbors who befriend Castle. Their stories seem more interesting than his. The fight scenes are, well, punishing, well-staged but so brutal that they throw the thin plot out of balance. The pacing is poor. It takes much too long to get to the massacre of Castle’s family, then the slaughter itself is dragged out unnecessarily and then it is reprised even more unnecessarily.
Parents should know that the movie has intense and graphic violence with many characters killed, including the Punisher’s parents, wife, and child. Characters are tortured and beaten. A character attempts suicide. Characters drink (and Castle abuses alcohol). They also smoke and use bad language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the risks that undercover law enforcers take and what they can do to protect their families. How can good memories save your life? Families should also talk about the line between justice and vengance. What is the answer to the question about what makes Castle different from Saint? What does it mean to say “if you want peace, prepare for war?”
Families who enjoy this movie might want to compare it to the earlier version of The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren. They might also like to see the X-Men movies and Tim Burton’s Batman.