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‘The Punisher’ review: Jon Bernthal makes the best of a bad character

Jon Bernthal stars in

Jon Bernthal stars in "The Punisher." Photo Credit: Netflix / Nicole Rivelli

THE SERIES “The Punisher”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

 WHAT IT’S ABOUT Introduced during the second season of “Daredevil,” ex-Marine Frank Castle, aka the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), finally takes care of the mobsters who killed his family in Central Park. Now, the Punisher — a popular Marvel anti-hero from the ’70s who killed bad guys without a second thought, and who is the antithesis to thoughtful, methodical Daredevil — faces a greater challenge. He’ll need an assist. Will he get that from an old friend from his unit, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), now helping veterans? Maybe a pal from “Daredevil” days, reporter Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll)? And what of former NSA analyst David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, “Girls”) who, like Frank, is also presumed dead?

MY SAY In an interview some years ago, “Avengers” director Joss Whedon said comic heroes “should not kill and, in particular, they should not use guns. . . . The Punisher? Coward. He’s a coward.” It’s a provocative point, and it raises an interesting question at the same time: What is an anti-hero like Frank Castle doing in a universe like this, anyway? He’s a Marvel anomaly, without superpowers or lofty goals. He doesn’t want to save Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem or Brooklyn, or any part of New York City for that matter. He wants vengeance, nothing more.

While rare in the world of comics, there are plenty of Punisher analogues in the movies and TV. With coiled intensity, Bernthal briskly channels many of them. There’s a little bit of Travis Bickle in that mad fury, some Jack Bauer in the slow burn. He’s Dirty Harry without a punchline, and Bullitt on a mission — and he does have the driving chops to prove it.

He’s also a bully, thug and bone-cruncher, who goes about his business with a sense of urgency but zero remorse. He smolders and internalizes, but never for long. He’s propulsive and compulsive. The world’s done him wrong, and now it’s payback. He figures he can slay his own demons by taking out bad guys, one by one, except that for every one he blows away, another pops up. It’s whack-a-mole vigilante justice, but Frank doesn’t care because his pain is bottomless.

 Whedon was wrong. The Punisher’s not a coward. He’s just a nut.

 Despite all this — and that — there’s surprisingly little violence in the early episodes. (The opening episode is the glaring exception, so beware.) The reason is that “The Punisher” needs to expand the lead character’s genesis story, or at least ennoble it. The mobsters who killed his family were just a front for a greater conspiracy — one that reaches to the highest levels of the government, and which had its roots back in Kandahar, where he was a member of a black ops team. Frank is also suffering from PTSD. Compounding this is guilt. He now knows he was an instrument of evil, and for what?

In flashback, that moving anti-war ballad by The White Buffalo, “Wish It Was True,” tracks during a frenzied battlefield scene: ”Country, . . . I did what you asked me to. It was wrong and you knew.” Nice song, but one in service of a galloping cliche? Maybe. Maybe not. I certainly saw plenty of galloping tropes in the first five episodes, and you can judge for yourself where they all end up. As usual, the production is immaculate, and Bernthal — who never disappoints — is his usual self. You may, however, wish (I did) that his Punisher wasn’t such a humorless, unmitigated jerk.

 BOTTOM LINE Bernthal’s terrific, but his Punisher is a nut — with guns.

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