Natural Justice

For those not in the know, the Punisher is an ex-cop named Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), whose entire extended family is wiped out in an act of gangland vengeance. The perpetrator of this outrage is one Howard Saint, played by John Travolta in a performance that echoes both his twitches in Face/Off and Mike Myers' Dr. Evil. The loss of Castle's family drives him, it seems, not so much crazy as beyond the law. The film refers to this as the realm of "natural justice" in an anarcho-fascist voiceover that may appeal to your inner torture specialist. It didn't appeal to mine, instead filling me with revenge fantasies about the film, the character, and my giggling co-viewers.

The Punisher is a Death Wish-style revenge-fantasy in tights, emphasizing elaborate tableaux of violence and torture. These set pieces are intended to convey delicate shadings of emotion, expressing by turns wit, the humor of slapstick, and, of course, the implacable force of that "natural justice." Given that this is a Marvel franchise, these goals will be pursued in as family-friendly a manner as possible. The operating aesthetic assumption is that violence is an art form (not, it should be noted, that violence in the cinema is an art form).

The film strings these vignettes of violence together, each incident escalating in intensity and explicitness. The initial gun battle that removes the Castles from this world is largely bloodless. The final set piece in which The Punisher offs Saint's family and underlings features a good deal of blood, although certainly nothing in the league of Kill Bill or The Passion of the Christ. Along the way we're treated to a torture session involving a blowtorch, a Popsicle, and a steak-sized slab of meat. Although it's treated as an elaborate practical joke, the scene depicts a genuine interrogation technique, something unlikely to provoke chuckles from a victim. A companion to this scene is another torture incident in which the film's number-two villain tenderly strips a pierced young man of his facial jewelry, yanking each ring out with pliers. This villain is clearly identified, naturally, as a homosexual and a sadist, unlike the straight sadists that comprise the balance of the film's protagonists. The scene is also the closest the film comes to sexualizing its kink. In the world of The Punisher, the genre trope of the celibate costumed hero clearly must be held in place with unusual, er, firmness.

The film's premise inverts Goya's Disasters of War, presenting human cruelty and suffering not as the grisly objects of moral opprobrium but instead as harmless objects of fascination and trivial amusement. My personal distaste for the subject matter aside, I rather imagine that the can-do, kill-'em-all, who-needs-international-law spirit of our national leadership lent wings to the funding of this film. Instead of making a film that aggressively explores the parameters of neofascism, torture, and sadism visualized as art and performance, The Punisher posits the necessity of these activities as a reflection of what's right and called for in the pursuit of justice. Instead of playing with whips and leather in the service of desire, torturing people before executing them replaces desire; horror masquerading as justice.

The film is not so much bad or lacking in self-awareness as it is, well, kinda middle of the road. Considered simply as a part of the recent Marvel juggernaut, director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh has created a film that is in the league of its labelmates. Despite this, the tension between the film's concept and the requirements of its execution make it a failure. I suspect that fans of the comic book will find themselves let down, especially if they are connoisseurs of the gore-and-violence genre.

I happened to see this film on a day when I awakened to the news of the citizenry of Falluja exerting what they presumably viewed as "natural justice" on a group of four American civilian security workers, burning and dismembering their corpses. The dead are people whose professional background might be similar to that of Frank Castle, former Special Forces members and the like. The night before the film, I chanced upon a series of photographs of an Iraqi journalist's forearm shattered by two AK-47 bullets, following the wound from incident to hospital. Despite personal fantasies involving explosive demolition of the screening I attended, after the Iraq photos The Punisher was unable to serve me in an escapist capacity.

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