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The Punisher (2004)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

This is not a movie for the younger kiddies, nor is it likely to be one that will suit all viewers. It doesn’t have much for sex but makes up for that in the amount of violence on screen. It is the story of former soldier and retired FBI cop Frank Castle and is summed up in some of the commentary on the DVD this way: Frank, skulls and guns. If that doesn’t sound intriguing to you, then this movie is probably not for you. If it does have a certain allure, then this movie may well be a real find.

The story begins on the Tampa, Florida waterfront. What appears to be a deal in prohibited firearms is taking place between Micky Duka (Eddie Jemison), his moneyman partner Bobby Saint (James Carpinello, who also plays Bobby’s brother John) and arms dealer Otto Krieg and his boys. After the terms are finalized and the deal is done, an FBI SWAT team enters arresting all the parties to the deal. Fast happening events lead to the apparent deaths of both Bobby Saint and Otto Krieg. Both of the casualties are taken in an ambulance to an FBI recovery area, where “Otto Krieg” rises from his gurney and reveals his actual identity of FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane).

Upon leaving that area Frank walks in to his surprise FBI “retirement” party. The sting which resulted in Bobby Saint’s death was his last domestic operation. He is looking forward to “retirement” with the “Bureau’s London desk.” (Why does the FBI have a London outpost?) However, before going to London, Frank, his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and son Will (Marcus Johns) have a dual family reunion to attend in Puerto Rico.

Frank Castle Sr. (Roy Scheider) appears to be the genial host of the family get-together. He is a gun collector who has an extensive set of customized Colt 1911’s as well as other firearms in his collection. As father and son are talking about what Sr. has done to his 1911 pistols, now in a glass case in the den, they take note of a disturbance outside at the family party.

Although I just recounted Frank’s portion of the story up to this point, the movie also showed other events intermixed: those involved Bobby Saint’s gang lord father Howard Saint (portrayed very well by John Travolta). Howard and his people have been finding out all they can about how Bobby was killed. After Bobby’s funeral Howard’s right-hand man Quentin Glass (well played by Will Patton) delivers a packet containing “CLASSIFIED” information on Otto Krieg and Frank Castle. While they are discussing the Castle family’s Puerto Rican get together, Howard tells Quentin he thinks Quentin should be there, so “you can come back and tell Livia how he died.” It is then that Bobby's mother: Livia Saint (Laura Harring), says to kill “His family, his whole family.”

As Quentin and his foot soldiers approach the Castle family party, they appear much like the FBI SWAT team during the sting when Bobby died, although they are unhelmeted, perhaps better dressed and have a more varied collection of guns. They start the killing with Frank’s mother and work their way through the unarmed partiers. Franks Sr. and Jr. grab elements of Sr’s collection and offer resistance, but they are heavily outnumbered. The last to be killed are Maria and Will. Because of a freak explosion it also appears that Frank Jr. is killed but he actually survives and is rescued by Candelaria (Veryl Jones) who helps Frank’s body to heal.

Upon returning to Tampa, Frank takes note that no one has been apprehended for the killings of his family. No one has been punished. Frank takes up residence in a section of town that is anything but upscale. His neighbors are an interesting set of misfits: Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) the caring and beautiful waitress who works in a neighborhood diner, Bumpo (John Pinette) the overweight gourmand and Spacker Dave (Ben Foster) the pierced punk. They provide comic counterpoint to Frank and his actions, as well as giving some evidence that Frank is still human through their interaction with him.

Most comic book heroes are vigilantes. The Punisher is not really unusual in that respect. However, like Batman (especially the Batman of Batman Begins which shows his path to vigilantism) the Punisher has no actual superhuman abilities and is merely a well trained mortal human. Unlike Batman, compassion is not a quality the Punisher holds penultimate. Justice through punishment is his first concern, or as he puts it: “In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue... natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it's an emotional response. No. Not vengeance. Punishment.”

It is my belief that restitution to victims is the proper rule of justice, but in “extreme situations” perhaps the Punisher has a point. I believe considering what actually started the chain of injustice in this story could lead to insight. The State with its laws restricting trade in firearms and its extreme enforcement methods stands at the beginning of those events. There are many Punisher books to be mined for movie material. Whether that occurs or not may well depend on the reception this movie receives in the DVD and premium channel market. If you are already a Punisher fan or this review piques your interest, give this movie a view. It may begin a series of very interesting films.

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