The Punisher  (2004)R

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As the ’80s are remembered for cheap stupid action movies, the ’00s are going to be remembered for expensive stupid remakes. Critics all said that this new one is exactly as good as the Dolph Lundgren version... but that’s excessively harsh; as genre-ific as this might be, it’s certainly not as bad as that. The acting, for one thing, is better throughout, and the characters are more three-dimensional (by which I mean, the fractal dimension rises from about 1.2 to 1.8 — surely you didn’t think I meant they could actually get up to three, did you?), and the visual look is slicker and less cheap looking. But Dolph Lundgren was cooler in one way: he lived in a sewer.

The Lundgren punisher has established a much higher offscreen body count, but this movie is far more brutally violent than the earlier one is. In fact, I’d say it’s the most harshly violent of all these comic book movies — certainly the most inappropriate for younger viewers.

bad guy: “You killed my son!”

punisher (bringing him up to date): “Both of them.”

The main area of real improvement over the earlier film is that it feels less like a bunch of action movie clichés than the first one did. Also, there’s a viewpoint to the film that can see the dysfunctionality and spiritual emptiness of the Punisher’s murderous lifestyle even when he never comes to see it himself, giving the story an element of authentic tragedy that some action movies try for but few ever reach successfully. But elsewhere, they cheat on the tragedy elements, by lifting plot elements from Shakespeare. The effect of this is to make the villain that the Punisher is fighting (who is played by John Travolta!) also a tragic figure, but in a way that doesn’t amount to anything meaningful. Whatever insight the movie achieves on the protagonist’s side is undermined by falsity elsewhere. Outside of this, the effort to wrap a lot of humanized drama around the psycopathic-action-hero plot is not very successful; for action fans, it just drags down the movie.

The filmmakers took pride in avoiding all the glitzy CGI shit and making all the fights and explosions as real as possible, and the effort was fairly successful at making the action seem realistic, particularly since Thomas Jane as the Punisher does his own stunts most of the time. There are still too many obvious jump-ramps in the car chases, but if you’re a fan of the action in action movies, this one has some good stuff. One fight in the middle of the movie has got to be one of the roughest I’ve seen anyone put on film... and much of it is played for laughs.

In the end, this movie accomplishes something rather remarkable: it tells a strict action-formula story in a way that makes it — subtly but definitely — a formula-breaking film. It almost reads as if somebody were trying to subvert the action paradigm while their boss was forbidding them to take it on directly. If that’s so, the resulting cross-purposes leave the subversion rather incomplete and artistically unsuccessful — the sort of thing you can admire for intent more than for accomplishment. Like, say, the symphonies that Shostakovich wrote during the reign of Stalin: he was sometimes ordered by the government to convey a certain mood and attitude, and sometimes complied in a way that a good ear can hear as completely sarcastic... it may be great work, but it’s definitely not what it should have been.

The DVD comes with a mini comic book (replete with ads for other movies) filling in some back-story for the film, plus plenty of making-of crap, and as a special bonus, picture quality that shows definite signs of low-bit-rate degradation.