I wrote an article a while back (and for no particular purpose) about The Punisher (2004), and I thought I would share it with you. Please think of this as a defense of a movie that you can probably find for $5 in the bargain bin on DVD and for $7 on Blu-ray, a movie that has been buried by critics. I don't think many people watched this in the right mindset; nor do I think that anyone besides fans of the comic books paid this any heed.
Reading my article a few years later, it's not half bad. Read it after the break, and visit the links I will include after the article if you're interested.
Good Business, Murder:
A Critical Appreciation of Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher
By Stephen Hawco
The cascade of super-hero movies begun by the success of 2000’s X-Men has introduced film-goers to a lot of big-budget comic book stories. While the box office receipts of these films have, in general, accurately separated the good, the bad, and the ugly, the adaptation of the Punisher comic book was not greeted so perceptively. An anomaly among the movies of Hollywood’s new pet genre, it relied not at all upon super human exhibitions of physicality or the type of larger-than-life, C.G.-smeared action sequences designed to highlight them. The Punisher was so unique because it was, in fact, the equivalent of a 70’s action film adorned not in bright spandex, but in a black trench coat.
The Punisher has long been a comic book of gritty realism. The main character is Frank Castle, christened the Punisher because of his longtime tendency to shoot, mangle, and blow up every criminal he comes across. He is one of Marvel’s only comic book heroes that isn’t super; he has no special powers of any kind. The trademark iconography of The Punisher includes, most prominently, Castle’s black clothing, the large white skull symbol on his chest, and lots and lots of guns.
Fans of the comic book should have been relieved to see that first time director Jonathan Hensleigh got these aspects right, at least. Likewise, the dark, urban environment that pervades (most of) the comics is transposed to (most of) the film. Like Batman, the Punisher prefers doing his hunting at night because that is when evil deeds are done in the open. Unlike Batman, the Punisher does not leave his prey alive to be acquitted by a corrupt jury or to be freed from the insane asylum by their allies.
This setup screams for a movie adaptation, and Hensleigh delivered (the second one, after Mark Goldblatt’s 1989 version) in 2004. A long-time writer for big-budget action films like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), Hensleigh made a $30 million film that was full of action for the price, yet it showcased a surprising amount of plot and the artistic sort of direction apparently deemed irrelevant in modern Hollywood action films.
The Punisher is a revenge picture that tells an origin story. It revolves around FBI agent Castle (Thomas Jane) an undercover FBI agent battling Tampa, Florida crime. After a local crime lord’s son is killed, his father, Howard Saint (John Travolta) orders the entire Castle family murdered, including Jane’s wife and son. All of the Castles are slaughtered at a family reunion in Puerto Rico leaving only Jane alive, though he spirals towards insanity. Soon he is back in Tampa, planning his revenge of pitting the Saints against each other while at the same time learning to relate to humans again through his tenement neighbors. He manipulates Travolta into killing his own wife (Laura Harring) and right-hand man (Will Patton). Jane then finishes off Travolta (and everyone else in the Saint organization) before leaving town to punish all the other scum in the world. The Punisher has been born of blood and fire, and the evil doers of the world had better watch out.
Many of the fans of the comic book complained about the amount of scheming on Castle’s part, hoping instead for nothing but a wall of bullets for two straight hours. Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France (Goldeneye) are too smart for this, knowing that for a single man to take down an entire syndicate, he would actually have to be intelligent, not just weighed down with ammunition.
And some intelligence is required to see the details Hensleigh shows us. Jane breaks the glass of a gun cabinet at the moment he decides on revenge, signifying his break from reality. Immediately after, his rebirth as a dark avenger is transparently shown in close-up, as he raises the black, skull-adorned t-shirt his son had bought him between his face and the camera, blotting out the old Frank Castle and revealing the new man, the vigilante, two shots later as he lowers it.
Jane never explains his plan on camera, but we are shown enough hints of it to piece it together long before he brings it to full fruition. He steals Harring’s car and parks it illegally at the same hotel that he has tricked Patton to occupy the same night. The parking ticket that results will much later lead Travolta to think that his wife and best friend are having an affair. Harring’s stolen earring left in Patton’s bed seals the deal, and we know that Jane planted it there.
The decadence of the Saints is never once stated. Publicly, they are a wealthy and popular Tampa family, making appearances at their own hip nightclub. Privately, where we are allowed to see them, their actions reveal their character. Travolta and Harring celebrate the news of the Castle murders by exchanging celebratory gifts: Harry Winston earrings for her, sex for him. The surviving Saint son, John (James Carpinello), is speaking to his father at home when his half-naked companion for the night nonchalantly slides into the frame and puts her arms around him, causing not even a stir from Travolta. Carpinello leaves a strip club in broad daylight.
As Travolta is about to execute one of his own henchmen for an infraction, the man claims innocence. Framed in a two shot, Carpinello gives Travolta a look that says, “Yes, he’s innocent, but kill him anyway,” and Travolta does. Patton looks like he’s out on a pleasure walk while Jane is beaten almost to death right in front of him. Sex and murder are just another indulgence for the Saints, no more meaningful than a family meal.
The film’s best moments come with the action. Hensleigh’s visual style here is one that recalls the great action pioneers of the 60’s and 70’s: Peckinpah, Siegel, and Leone. Like these men, Hensleigh made a nihilistic film where even the (anti)hero has something inside, something to do with death. Hensleigh’s expressed goal was to “attempt to make a comic book film as if Sam Peckinpah had directed it, or Don Siegel, or one of the auteur, R-rated, violent-oriented directors of the early 70’s.” Like them, he incorporated a visual style that was just as intriguing as the story.
The camera often follows over-the-shoulder of Jane as he handles his guns, and it pans around in the direction he aims, framing his upper body, his weapon, and the enemy in the same shot. When Jane faces six Henchmen in the Saint nightclub, the depth of field allows this whole composition to be in focus, but sometimes Hensleigh goes for added effect, like when Jane peeks around a doorway and a rack focus shows us his target.
The scenes of hand-to-hand combat are filmed in a most surprising way: from a wide view, with shots lasting longer than a half-second. Modern action etiquette dictates a shaky camera cutting quickly from one close-up blur of action to the next, deceiving the audience into believing the two combatants are performing intricate and deadly moves. Hensleigh doesn’t use particularly long takes, but he lets them last longer than most current directors would. His actors really had to be performing these actions in succession, and there is a lack of insert shots amidst the wide ones. The effect is much more convincing.
Hensleigh’s editing is pretty standard and doesn’t draw attention to itself, another ancient technique. During action sequences, his cutting allows us to see what is going on in most takes. However, when Jane kills an adversary by shooting a spring-loaded knife into his jugular, the impact is shown in four different shots within one second, all too quick to be comprehended. Here as elsewhere, the editing explodes with the violence. Almost no slow-mo is used in the film; the action is not slow or beautiful. It is awkward and desperate when it isn’t downright funny. The massacre of the Castle clan does not look like ballet.
In this sense, and most others, Hensleigh actually copies not Peckinpah or Siegel, but Leone. This film is exaggerated, set in a harsher yet more entertaining world than ours, a world of impossibly good timing and operatic coincidences. As the backlit Jane faces off with Travolta in the final showdown that echoes a Western duel, the music tones a death knell. Travolta, meeting the man he blames for his younger son’s death for the first time, states his reason for the massacre of the Castle family: “You killed my son.” With impossible timing, Carpinello is heard shouting from off camera, just before an explosion silences him. With a quick glance back at the night club in which the last Saint child just died, Jane informs him, “Both of ‘em.” Figuratively, Jane has killed Travolta’s son right in front of him, returning the favor.
Travolta is then shot, outdrawn by Jane; men of Travolta’s stature no longer do their own fighting, just executing, and Jane’s anger burned the brighter. On the bullet’s impact, Hensleigh cuts to a close-up behind Travolta’s head as he spins around to face the camera in shock: his life is over; one man has taken down Howard Saint. This is the same shot as in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), when the mighty Frank (Henry Fonda) finally meets his match and is shot by Charles Bronson’s Harmonica. We see their eyes because, in both films, the eyes are the window to the inner person.
Leone zoomed in to a huge close-up of Bronson’s eyes in Once Upon a Time in the West before revealing his motivation for revenge against Fonda: the memory of his brother’s murder. In The Punisher, Hensleigh gives us a close-up of Jane’s eyes as he makes his most important decision. At the end of the movie, his revenge completed, he puts a gun to his chin to end his life. Then, after the close-up, we see what he sees: his wife (Samantha Mathis) is walking away from him into a haze and signaling for him to stay behind. He is not to meet her in the afterlife yet. (In this sense The Punisher is a lot like Gladiator but with more .45’s.)
When Jane faces down two henchmen in a lobby, the shot is also from Once Upon a Time in the West, when Bronson gets off a train to meet three men Fonda sent to kill him. The camera is low, with the bad guys in the foreground, their backs to us, and Bronson in the background facing us, framed between two of his opponents. The wide-angle lens allows all to be in focus. In The Punisher, Jane is only facing two men, but the shot is the same and the sequence follows Leone’s favorite formula: the editing builds tension during a period of homeostasis. We cut from close-up to close-up: men’s faces, their guns in their holsters, fingers twitching nervously as they feel for the right moment to draw. Then, suddenly, the guns are drawn and men die, all within a couple of seconds.
The feeling of exaggeration is completed by the film’s use of music. A musical hit man (Mark Collie) walks into a café, sits down in front of Jane, takes his guitar out of its case, and performs a song foretelling Jane’s death. Our disbelief at the absurdity of the situation is reflected on the faces of the perplexed café patrons. Even more unbelievably, the man packs up his guitar and walks out without attacking. Later, Jane fights a long hand-to-hand battle with a ridiculously large opponent (Kevin Nash) to literal opera music, Verdi’s “La Donna E Mobile.” Italian composer Carlo Siliotto adds a Spaghetti Western-like score, mimicking Morricone. From the beginning, the influence is obvious, as the animated opening, similar to those of Leone’s first three Westerns, features bullets flying across the screen to Siliotto’s majestic yet melancholy main theme.
These credits are followed by two hours of “ultra violence married with a sort of wacky sense of humor,” as Hensleigh described it. This is purposeful, transposing the style of current Punisher comic writer Garth Ennis. The violence itself was too much for some critics; adding black humor to scenes of death and destruction just made their reaction even worse.
Hensleigh makes us watch most of the extreme moments of violence instead of cutting away or hiding them off camera, as he does when the innocent are harmed. In fact, he will often cut to them, giving his approval when Jane kills his enemies. When a man’s foot is blown off by a shotgun, Hensleigh inserts a medium shot of the impact. We see an arrow sticking out both sides of a criminal’s neck as he falls dead.
The Punisher has the peculiar honor of earning enmity for being both too stupid and too intelligent, a noteworthy accomplishment considering the paradox. The young action lovers raised on Michael Bay films were disappointed that they had to actually pay attention to follow the film’s plot. (Hensleigh even broke the R-rated action film rules concerning sex: Jane does not take advantage of his lonely neighbor, Joan [then Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, now just Romijn], despite how attracted she is to him. Nor does Romijn, a famous swimsuit model, appear nude.) The elitist critics were disappointed that the film didn’t say something more, as if a film about a homicidal vigilante needs to say something. They also disliked the over-the-top aspects of the dialogue and the violence.
Fundamentally, The Punisher is an action movie. The general public response to it as not being exciting enough is symptomatic of the state of moviedom. Without the flashy C.G. effects and lightning-fast cutting of modern action movies to cover its faults, The Punisher is laid bare. Its camp, which does exist and which turned off a lot of critics, fits in the operatic world Hensleigh created, though this is shown too subtly for today’s mainstream audience. The Punisher and its $33 million domestic box office are proof that in the action genre, the very appearance of subtle directing and gimmick-free cinematography has become a liability, a nuisance.
No, Hensleigh’s movie is not Shakespearian drama, and it shouldn’t be. It is, however, a treat for the nostalgic action fan and about as good as any film based upon this comic book will ever be.
Creative control of the Punisher franchise was taken out of the hands of Hensleigh, Jane, and France and given to director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans). She made this hunk of garbage in 2008. Jane showed his continued love for the character with the excellent short film, The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (2012), available here. And, yes, for the record, Dolph Lundgren starred in the first Punisher movie in 1989.