What is the difference between The Punisher and Kill Bill Vol. 2? This is not as stupid a question as it sounds. Although on the surface the differences are obviousone is a slick Hollywood product marking the directing debut of the hack responsible for more than one Jerry Bruckheimer project; the other is the eccentric vision of an acclaimed auteurat their hearts, each is a retelling of the age-old revenge fantasy, and each draws on rich cinematic traditions and shared cultural memories to tell its story.
Why, then, will The Punisher undoubtedly get torn apart by critics, while Kill Bill Vol. 2 is already being hailed as one of the best films of the year? Some critics will tell you it's because of writer-director Quentin Tarantino's characterizations and depth in Bill vs. the lack thereof in co-writer and director Jonathan Hensleigh's Punisher. But the difference is really more superficial than that, and largely comes down to Tarantino's sense of playfulness and style, and his greater knowledge and use of film history. The Punisher is a grim, cynical, empty action film, and its basic revenge story is given only the most cursory of window dressing, making it not much more engaging than last year's Vin Diesel train wreck, A Man Apart. Kill Bill Vol. 2 takes far more pleasure in its use of revenge conventions, and Tarantino is a far more talented stylist than Hensleigh, but it's got a Vin Diesel movie under its surface somewhere, too.
The first volume of Tarantino's epic homage to martial-arts flicks and spaghetti Westerns was nearly as empty as The Punisher, following the assassin known only as the Bride (Uma Thurman) as she sought revenge on her former associates, fellow assassins who had slaughtered her wedding party and left her for dead. As she has killed Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) in the first film, the second finds the Bride after Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and, of course, Bill (David Carradine). It also flashes back to the Bride's early training with master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) and an extended view of her wedding-day confrontation with Bill.
While Vol. 1 emphasized action over characterization and dialogue, with none of Tarantino's trademark banter, Vol. 2 fleshes the Bride out, giving her a name and exploring her disturbing relationship with Bill, the father of the daughter she thought she lost in the massacre. Fans of Vol. 1's over-the-top action will be disappointed that Vol. 2 is relatively low-key, with none of the gushing blood which accompanied the Bride's confrontation with O-Ren. Instead we get Madsen in a nearly soporific performance as redneck Budd, and Carradine as his creepily paternal brother Bill. Only Hannah, as the calculating and bloodthirsty Elle, provides the sort of ass-kicking action that filled the first film.
Light on action, then, Vol. 2 has more depth, the main reason critics are so quick with praise. But the Bride's final, talky confrontation with Bill isn't as revealing as it should be, and her training with Pai Mei, a campy caricature of white-bearded martial-arts trainers through the ages, is too silly to be taken seriously. There's no denying Tarantino's flair for visual style and pastiche, and if there's nothing as impressive as Vol. 1's anime sequence or battle with the Crazy 88s, there is a real love for revenge pictures which shines through, even in subtle touches (a Charles Bronson poster on Budd's wall; the Bride and her daughter watching Shogun Assassin).
The whole is never more than the sum of its parts, though, no matter how well-crafted those parts are. The Punisher, on the other hand, has a greater purity of vision, even if that vision is squarely middle-of-the-road. Based on a Marvel Comics character, previously brought to life by monosyllabic action slab Dolph Lundgren in a 1989 straight-to-video stinker, The Punisher tells the simple revenge tale of retired FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), whose entire family is murdered by crime lord Howard Saint (John Travolta), after Castle's final job results in the death of Saint's son.
Hensleigh puts his overkill into overdrive, having Saint kill not only Frank's beatific wife and son, but more than 30 others, too, all conveniently placed together for maximum carnage at a family reunion. Frank barely survives and returns to plan his systematic revenge on Saint and his organization. Even in the comics, the Punisher is a bit of a one-dimensional killing machine, and Hensleigh doesn't seem to know whether to take him seriously or not. He saddles Frank with a trio of comic-relief sidekicks, but the camp never carries over into the primary revenge plot, which is plodding and obvious. Jane is a decent actor, but this is not a part which calls for acting, and Lundgren's mealy-mouthed delivery would probably have served just as well.
With experience writing films like Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Rock, Hensleigh knows nearly as much about revenge as Tarantino, and The Punisher has its own little moments of homage, with two quick-draw face-offs straight out of any number of westerns. Hensleigh doesn't have Tarantino's style, though, nor does he have actors like Thurman and Carradine at his disposal (Tarantino made far better use of Travolta, too). In his own way, each director has added to the revenge-film tradition; that Tarantino's film turns out better is due less to his supposed genius than to simply a better knowledge of how to cover up the genre's flaws.