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Getting Punished by The Punisher

Written by: Alan Hawkins, special to CC2K

It's better than the Dolph Lundgren version, but it still misses the headshot

I just finished watching the newest version of The Punisher, starring Tom Lane and John Travolta. As with any comic book movie, let's start with the comic. The plot of The Punisher is simple. Cop's family gets killed by the mob. Cop seeks revenge with more firepower than Bolivia. Frank castle first appeared in the comic Amazing Spiderman #129 (An issue now worth $500.00 in mint condition). That issue appeared on the stand in 1974, and by the early eighties the Punisher was showing up regularly in Marvel comics, eventually getting his own title. The Punisher was always the pariah of the Marvel universe, so why the success? Easy: Frank Castle was our id with heavy artillery. Indeed, he surpassed characters like Wolverine and Batman for sheer brutality. Remember, Batman never killed anyone, and Wolverine only killed when in berserker mode — manslaughter only — while Frank Castle did nothing but commit premeditated murder. Frank Castle the character also came of age in the Me Decade — the grand, old 80s — and later became the unfortunate poster boy for the Trenchcoat Mafia crowd.

Then in 1989 came the Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr. movie, The Punisher, one of the worst superhero movies ever — a distinction that puts it into the same shameful pantheon as Steel and Captain America. It was bad enough that Lundgren looked like he had dunked his head in a barrel of 10W-40 and had no skull emblem on his chest, but he was supposed to be the "nice" Punisher, riding his motorcycle through subways and doin' good.

Many knowledgable geeks have blamed this movie for putting Marvel in Hollywood's doghouse during the 90s, especially with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie ushering in the decade.

But the Tom Lane version almost makes it. It quite nearly captures the emotional distance and numbness that a Punisher movie needs to be a true version of the comic. Indeed, Tom Lane has had some experience in this type of film, having played the druggie video freak in The Crow: City of Angels (1996). The first time I saw Lane in a movie, I had to shake off the feeling that I was watching Christopher Lambert's younger brother.

The new movie starts off a lot like the comic: Family is murdered along with Castle, but Frank is still alive and after a local Voodoo witch doctor nurses him back to health — What?!? — he comes back to haunt the murderers.

But what is a fairly quick beginning turns into a slow paced action/revenge film. Along the way Frank is adopted into a family of misfits that live in the building where he hides out. These people represent Frank's human side that's still buried deep inside him, and by golly, he just might rediscover it with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' help! Hollywood touches like these throw off the movie's dramatic center of gravity. We don't need to see Frank Castle become human again — not after seeing his wife and only child brutally murdered. We want to see him kill a fucking shitload of people. In fact, the last hour of the movie should have been the focus of the entire movie — revenge, punishment and violence on sale in aisle 9!

I'm being glib, but by trying to humanize Castle, the filmmakers overlook one of the great side-benefits of doing a revenge tragedy: Because we've already watched our hero go through shattering loss, we automatically sympathize with him. We don't need to see him become a human, because only a human could experience such a tragedy.

Frank Castle is a relic of Regan-era excess, but as long as we have to see movies made about him, they should at least be true to the character. In fact, the best Punisher movie ever made was The Crow, and any future Punisher movie should aspire to be a pimple on the ass of Brandon Lee's harrowing final film.

Apparently production recently wrapped on Punisher 2. Hopefully this time we won't have the crew of misfits, a love interest or any connection to the mob family of the first movie. And the only issue Frank Castle should have to deal with is whether to use an explosive arrow fired from a high-power crossbow or a Mac-10 with a grenade launcher.

And as opposed to the automatic sympahy that the audience feels for the hero of a revenge tragedy, one drawback of the genre is how quickly the audience gets tired of watching bloodshed — but Kill Bill and The Crow have shown us that sound storytelling can overcome that obstacle. Hopefully the next Punisher movie will take notes from those films — trust the audience's instinct to sympathize with a revenge tragedy hero, and arm said hero with more firepower than the gunrack in Charlton Heston's H2.

If not, then I look forward to Tom Lane in the remake of Highlander.