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The Punisher - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

IT’S been almost 15 years since Dolph Lundgren made his bid for A-list, action-man status by taking on Marvel Comic’s bad-ass law enforcer, The Punisher, so it is hardly surprising to find the character has been revived, especially given the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises.

The 2004 version of Marvel’s darkest comic book hero stars Thomas Jane as the eponymous crime-fighter and John Travolta as the movie’s big villain.

And, in the words of co-producer and Marvel Comic supremo, Avi Arad, ‘The Punisher is gritty and real, and we wanted to make a movie that reflected that’.

Marvel Comics first introduced Frank Castle, the vigilante known as The Punisher, in February 1974, as a supporting character in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Castle arrived in a popular culture that had responded strongly to loner anti-heroes like Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle (The French Connection) and Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force) - cops who confronted urban crime on their own unsparing terms.

Five months after The Punisher's debut, in July 1974, the premiere of the controversial Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as a New York architect turned vigilante, took place.

Comments Arad, who is also CEO of Marvel Studios: "Like movies, comics are reflective of the time in which they are being published. The Punisher is a by-product of 70's anxieties about crime and social breakdown."
From the beginning, The Punisher stood out in the Marvel universe as a different kind of super-hero. He had no supernatural gifts, and his skills - whether hand-to-hand combat, weapons mastery, or battlefield strategizing - were strictly organic.

The Punisher was flesh and blood, like his readers, and he proved so popular that he was given his own series. Hence, by 1990, he was starring in as many as three titles a month.

In recent years, the franchise has reinvented itself with a series of sharply written, evocatively illustrated books by writer, Garth Ennis, and illustrator, Steve Dillon, whose titles include the Welcome Back Frank series.

In 2000, The Punisher re-emerged as one Marvel's top-selling solo books and remains a top seller for the company.

Despite the failure of Lundgren’s portrayal to ignite with cinema-goers, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh believes the latest version is indicative of the type of film modern audiences want to see.

"The problem with revenge stories is that they're a staple of American cinema and because of that, the genre is a little shopworn.

"But this particular revenge story held my interest - it brought a fresh coat of paint to the genre. It had a starkness to it, and also a sweetness with the ancillary characters. The tenement apartment dwellers were very prominent in the Welcome Back Frank series. I think that they had a great deal to do with my attraction to the story. It wasn't just nihilistic."

In the original comic, Frank Castle becomes a vigilante after his family is killed in a random act of violence in Central Park.

But Hensleigh adapted the original story, crafting a darker scenario in which Castle's entire family is the target of a criminal's merciless vendetta - a vendetta that has its roots in Castle's work for the FBI.

Castle's rage is thus compounded with a sense of guilt, and the wrenching knowledge that the governmental structures he trusted to protect him and his family failed.

The resulting picture has left American critics divided.

Rolling Stone, for instance, felt that the film ‘laudably exposes the dark core of the human heart’.

While Film Blather wrote that it ‘constantly prods and provokes, hitting certain emotional notes and asking why we reacted the way we did... One of the most thoughtful comic book adaptations I have ever seen’.

But Splicedwire lamented that it ‘can't begin to measure up to the popcorn vengeance of Mel Gibson's Payback or the moody, provocative, primal reprisal of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey’.

While Montreal Film Journal’s film critic scathingly insisted that ‘I miss Dolph Lundgren’.

The New York Times was quite scathing, too, noting that 'its lack of subtlety is clearly a point of pride, and Mr. Hensleigh's flat-footed, hard-punching style has a blunt ferocity that makes Kill Bill look like In the Bedroom'.

And Entertainment Weekly referred to it as 'a moronically inept and tedious piece of death-wish trash'.

But on a more positive note, to wrap up this overview, was the Los Angeles Times, which concluded that 'Hensleigh has made a film that is less self-consciously operatic, something that has both the visual flairand the lean, determined drive of Old School comics'.

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