MIAMI — Thanks to "Spider-Man" and the "X-Men," Marvel Comics movies are big business, and actors who've never read the source material are lining up to nab superhero roles. Thomas Jane, however, is not one of them.
"I've been a fan of comic books all of my life, but I didn't take the Punisher role right away," Jane said between takes on "The Punisher" set. "Because any time you bring a known character to life," he continued with all the grim seriousness befitting the skull-chested vigilante, "there's an incredible responsibility to not f--- it up."
What eventually convinced the 35-year-old actor, whose credits include "Deep Blue Sea" and "The Thin Red Line," was the screenplay's healthy reliance on the comic books themselves.
"I just wanted to make sure we had the right take on it, that it was going to be rated R and we were able to do some of the graphic, violent, horrible stuff Frank Castle is famous for," he said.
In Marvel lore, war veteran Frank Castle became the Punisher after his family was brutally slaughtered by mobsters. Lacking Spider-Man's superpowers and Captain America's high morals, the Punisher is simply a resourceful and highly skilled killer-of-killers who whacks criminals any chance he gets.
The new movie, which bears little similarity to the much-maligned 1989 version with Dolph Lundgren, moved the character from New York to Miami. It's otherwise reportedly faithful to gritty scribe Garth Ennis' recent comic stories, particularly his "Welcome Back Frank" series.
"I've read all of it, but I mostly stick with 'War Zone,' 'War Journal,' 'Welcome Back Frank' and 'Year One,' " Jane explained. "Like any series, it goes through phases. Great writers arrive and reinvent something great."
"The Punisher," which wrapped principal photography in late fall, features several beloved Ennis characters. These include the Russian, played by pro wrestler Kevin Nash, and Castle neighbor Joan the Mouse, played by the decidedly un-mousy Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
"Marvel Films must be making up for my last Marvel Comics experiences, which were the 'X-Men' films. After playing Mystique, which took nine hours of makeup, I'm allowed not to wear any makeup at all," joked Romijn-Stamos, who was wearing her character's waitress uniform. "I can literally roll out of bed and onto the set."
The last few Marvel Films releases, including even "Daredevil" and "Hulk," have debuted with top box-office receipts their opening weekends. But Rebecca was keen to point out that "The Punisher" will lack those flicks' more mainstream appeal. "I don't know if you're going to be able to take the whole family to this. It's gonna be really dark, really bloody and pretty violent."
Jane hit the weights and trained with a group of Navy SEALs to ready himself for the part, and "he's doing a lot of his own stunts," Romijn-Stamos pointed out with awe, relating a story about the time she had to sew up a wound on him for a scene that ended with him bleeding for real.
"He didn't even flinch," she said.
Rebecca isn't the only "Punisher" star convinced that Thomas has nailed Castle. John Travolta, who plays the lead villain (see "John Travolta Hunting Ex Delta Force Commando In 'Punisher' "), definitely agrees. "Thomas adds a layer of depth to his interpretation that actually dropped the gauntlet and raised the level of acting in the movie," Travolta said.
"I'm an actor, and I love movies where people sit around and talk about their feelings and stuff, but I get real bored," Jane noted. "I grew up with 'The Terminator' and 'First Blood.' If you have real people doing real stuff, then you have the best of both worlds, like Charles Bronson in 'The Mechanic' and Lee Marvin in 'Point Blank.' "
"He's bringing something Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood brought to those early revenge movies," Travolta said, "but it's even a step up, because he's a very committed and serious actor."
"My take on it is that Frank served his country in the Special Forces, and then he was a law man after that. His belief system is set up so he fully believes in wrong and right. And then, when the system fails him utterly, he snaps," Jane explained.
Fan reaction to the movie's early trailers has been mixed, and how hardcore Punisher fans will react when the flick opens in April is anyone's guess. Thomas Jane, for his part, hopes his fellow fans feel he's done the character justice. "Fans have known this guy for years. When they see the film, I want people to see some of the guy they grew up with
—Ryan J. Downey, with additional reporting by Iann Robinson