For the record, the Punisher is not into vengeance: “Revenge is not a valid emotion,” he says while arming himself to wreak utter devastation on a villain who has no idea what’s coming. “This is punishment.” Based on the Marvel Comics character (who first appeared in 1974, around the time of mighty movie vigilantes like Dirt Harry), Jonathan Hensleigh’s first film is a dark, very R-rated fantasy about helplessness, frustration, and debilitating rage. That is, The Punisher is resplendently uncolorful and pretty much unrelenting, from the moment that FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, who worked out hard for this movie, demonstrated every time he takes off his shirt, which is often) decides to retire.
Of course, he can’t. Or rather, his retirement from official law enforcement is denied when his last case goes horribly wrong. And well it should, if only because his “undercover” accent, as slick, sandals-wearing arms dealer “Otto Krieg” is so appalling. During the takedown, the inexperienced buyer, son of Tampa money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta), is shot to death. Daddy vows revenge on whoever is responsible. And Mommy, a.k.a. Livia (Laura Harring), vows worse: she insists that Frank witness the murders of his entire family, so that his suffering begins to approximate her own great big heartbreak. In other words, she’s the sort of voluptuous and vacuous villainess who lives in comic books.
Howard sends his best black-t-shirt-wearing goons to Puerto Rico, where Frank’s family (some 30 folks, all told) is celebrating his retirement on the beach: among those few names or faces are his dad (Roy Scheider), wife Maria (Samantha Mathis), and young son Will (Marcus Johns). The massacre takes some time, not so much to showcase bloodshed (the bodies and sand fly, in requisite slow motion) as to stage Frank’s grief. He’s stabbed, shot, beaten, and still, he endeavors to save lone temporary survivors Maria and Will, only to see their bodies crumpled, following a smash-up with the bad guys’ all terrain vehicle. Even at this moment, the victims’ faces remain unseen, as Frank’s pain takes up center frame, their forms pulled close to his mighty chest (not so mighty as Dolph Lundgren’s, of course).
Though he’s beaten and shot and left for dead, Frank survives and is nursed back to health by a local “witch doctor” (he’d look like a Magical Negro if he were more visible: as he has two and half scenes and two lines, he’s more like sympathetic background, wishing his charge well after a few offscreen weeks together). Frank focuses his attentions quite immediately on developing his image: he heads to Tampa, where he drinks a lot of Wild Turkey, fixes up an aging muscle car (loudly), and fashions heavy weaponry in a shabby apartment.
Down the hall from this walking rampage-to-be are a few folks in need of protection (wouldn’t you know it?): multiply pierced geek-boy Dave (Ben Foster), opera fan Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), and The Girl, this in the form of a diner waitress named Joan (Rebecca Romijn-soon-to-sans-Stamos). Conveniently, her lug of a boyfriend pounds her door gruesomely enough that Frank must emerge from his lonely, self-pitying stupor to save the day. With excessive force, of course.
Suitably impressed by their new neighbor’s capacity for payback, Joan encourages him to make new “memories” before his old ones kill him (Frank snarks, “It’s not me they’re going to kill”). The threesome has him over dinner, trying to imagine him into their misfits family. Frank’s not having it (“I’m not what yer lookin’ for,” he growls at Joan), though he does feel badly when Howard’s henchmen stop by to torture Dave because he won’t tell them where Frank’s hiding. Okay, he’s not exactly hiding, but is unconscious following a comically hectic knockdown—through multiple walls—with the hired assassin, The Russian (outsized wrestler Kevin Nash), but Joan is quite conscious as she covers his moaning mouth in an elevator car, just below the torture scene, her face uplifted into a shaft of light, frantic with empathy for her neighbor’s screaming agony, an image that’s actually more disturbing than any of the razzmatazz explosions or car flips or shootouts.
Once Dave has his facial piercings ripped out, his little face a bloody mush, Frank sets to work for real; apparently, he’s been toying with his heavyweight prey until now, even as he’s defended himself against the notorious hired gun Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and any number of onslaughts by Howard’s regular boys (who fall, basically, like flies before the Punisher’s cruelty). Having done some surveillance on the Saints at home and in business, he engages in psychological warfare, arranging for family and associates to distrust one another.
Among these targets is Howard’s longtime consigliore and accountant, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), whom Frank describes in voiceover as you’re looking at his stakeout photos: the guy is vile and unpredictable, and voila, he’s not beating up that guy against a wall, but kissing him. Before you start thinking that this is reductive phobia, however, the film offers minimal complication, by making his gayness (which he hides assiduously from his employer and “best friend” Howard) is actually the reason allowed for his trustworthiness, at least in one regard. It’s a twisty business, but it hardly makes his apparently inherent evil any less obvious, designated by his jet black outfits and Patton’s incredibly discomforting performance (horrified when he’s assaulted by a friend, his delivery of two words—“What!? Whaaat!?”—is seriously delirious).
Ungainly and grim, the movie is loaded with comic-book heroic clichés and explosive effects (the surfeit just turns silly by film’s end), but it doesn’t pretend to be nice. Its violence is hard. Frank and his enemies are bad men, whether they presume their punishments are just or just personal. “What makes you different from them?” whimpers Joan as she watches Frank mount up. “They’ve got something to lose,” he grumps.