Frank Castle, an ultra-resourceful ex-FBI agent played by Tom Jane, is “killed” twice in the first 40 minutes of “The Punisher.” Because the picture still has more than 80 minutes to go, and Jane is the star, he is, course, resurrected.
The first resurrection is almost plausible. The second is so shameless that it almost requires new guidelines for suspending disbelief. And that’s just for starters. The writer-director, Jonathan Hensleigh, adapting a Marvel Comics series about a righteous vigilante who supposedly has no superhuman powers, clearly doesn’t care if he keeps painting himself into corners. The movie rapidly turns into an act of narrative chutzpah.
Hensleigh doesn’t shy away from mixing corn and camp; on its own nasty, derivative terms, “The Punisher” is slickly done. Each action sequence attempts to top the previous one for absurdity, until Castle finds himself using fists, knives, garden tools and a grenade to battle a monstrous muscleman known simply as “The Russian” (Kevin Nash).
Accompanied by an aria from “Rigoletto,” and intercut with shots of Castle’s friends dancing, the episode takes place in an apartment in a Florida slum. The place doesn’t appear to be inhabited by neighbors or police who might notice a grenade shattering half a building. Castle, his pals and enemies appear to be operating in a vacuum.
The plot, which revolves around a feud between two families, provides just enough motivation to keep their members busy settling scores. When the spoiled son (James Carpinello) of a wealthy gangster, Howard Saint (John Travolta), is killed during an FBI sting operation, Castle is blamed, and Saint goes after Castle’s wife (Samantha Mathis), son and the rest of Castle’s family. Bloodbath follows bloodbath until it’s time for a “Mad Max” ending that’s clearly a setup for a sequel.
Hensleigh previously worked on the scripts for Michael Bay’s “The Rock” and “Armageddon”; this marks his directing debut. He’s a more playful director than Bay, less worried about pleasing audiences with short-attention spans, and he seems to trust his actors more.
Roy Scheider’s role as Castle’s father is brief, but he plays it with enthusiasm. The same goes for Laura Harring as Saint’s demanding wife and Will Patton as Saint’s sadistic and devoted henchman. Ben Foster and John Pinette, as a pair of nerdy friends who become Castle’s surrogate family, create a credible relationship from just a few hints in the script.
For much of the past decade, Tom Jane has been making an impression in independent films (“Boogie Nights”), would-be blockbusters (“Deep Blue Sea”) and TV movies (he was particularly well-cast as Mickey Mantle in HBO’s “61*”). There’s a Clint Eastwood grit to his work here, especially as the character toughens up, cracking wise about replacing the law with “natural justice” and advising God “to sit this one out.”
It comes as no surprise that Hensleigh and his cinematographer, Conrad W. Hall, are fans of Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry.” But if “The Punisher” becomes a franchise, will it become as mean-spirited as the rest of the “Harry” series? It already seems halfway there.