Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Punisher

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Marvel Comics heroes have clearly become grist for the Hollywood mill. The movie industry has fed the X-Men, the Hulk and Spiderman into its machinery to grind out box office gold. The success of these flicks is no wonder. Comic book junkies need their fix and TV series featuring these heroes have made their names household words.

But the Punisher is a lesser god in the Marvel Comics pantheon. He has no super powers courtesy of mutation or radiation. Compared to his marvelous peers, he’s just an average Joe, a cop who’s galvanized to punish evildoers (like Batman with military training, but without the bucks to buy all that nifty Batgear). Despite his relatively minor status as a quasi-super hero, *The Punisher*’s producers probably figured that comic book hero and action flick fans couldn’t wait for summer blockbusters like *Spiderman 2*. So releasing *The Punisher* now must have seemed a no-brainer.

And The Punisher is a no-brainer. Where the X-Men, the Hulk and Spiderman could have provided Freud with juicy case studies and Joseph Campbell with more examples of mythological heroes, the Punisher is skin-deep. But at least this year’s Punisher, Tom Jane — like Dolph Lundgren, the 1989 model — fills that skin with beefcake.

In Lundgren’s earlier (and more ridiculous) version, Frank Castle starts out as a cop. A Mafia hit leaves him somehow declared dead (he’s not) and his wife and kids in the grave. Anyone familiar with the psychology of clichéd comic book heroes knows that such a traumatic loss seems to inevitably lead to a compulsion to form an alter ego, find a lair, and moonlight as a crime-fighter. Lundgren’s Frank becomes the Punisher, takes the city’s sewer system as his new digs and single-handedly takes on the Mafia and the Yakuza, Japan’s crime syndicate.

Veteran action screenwriters Michael France (*Hulk*) and Jonathan Hensleigh (*Armageddon*) follow the American way by making this new version bigger and better. They promote Frank from cop to undercover FBI agent, manage to have the bad guys make a massacre of his family reunion and move him out of the sewers and into a seedy apartment building where his neighbors include a couple of zany types (for comic relief) and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a beautiful and vulnerable waitress.

Of course, Joan is a comic book stock character: the damaged, could-be girlfriend for the traumatized hero (like Spiderman’s Mary Jane). But then this is a movie made of clichés from Frank’s Dirty Harry squint and raspy voice to John Travolta in his villain mode as Howard Saint, a multimillionaire financier — and part-time drug money launderer.

*The Punisher* is a crowd-pleaser, though. The audience oohed at Frank’s losses and ahhed at the graphic violence. It seemed that for them *The Punisher* hurt so good.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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