Benjamin has been reviewing films for sixteen years and has seen more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
The Punisher is an action thriller film released in 2004 and is based on the Marvel comics character of the same name created by Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. The film is a reboot of the 1989 film of the same name and follows vigilante Frank Castle as he seeks revenge for the death of his family at the hands of a mafia mob boss. The film stars Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider and Rebecca Romijn and was directed by screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh in his directorial debut. Despite a largely negative reception from critics, the film made a slight profit with global takings of $54.7 million and generated enough interest for a sequel Punisher: War Zone in 2008. However, both Jane and Hensleigh were not involved in that production. Since the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU, the character has since appeared in his own TV series after debuting in the Daredevil show in 2016.
What's it about?
Undercover FBI officer Frank Castle successfully manages to disrupt a gun smuggling ring in Tampa after killing the son of mafia boss Howard Saint, Bobby. Understandably upset over the death of his son, Saint discovers Castle's role in the botched operation and arranges a hit on Castle's home during a family reunion. As his loved ones are gunned down in front of him, Frank barely manages to escape with his life and is slowly nursed back to health.
While the police and FBI investigation seemingly goes nowhere, Frank moves into a run-down apartment and begins plotting his revenge. With scant regard for the law, Frank begins targeting Saint's more legitimate businesses and scuppering potentially illegal activities. So when Saint discovers that Frank is somehow still alive, he calls in every favour he's owed in order to put him down for good.
Frank Castle / The Punisher
Frank Castle Sr.
Jonathan Hensleigh & Michael France *
Release Date (UK)
24th September, 2004
Action, Crime, Thriller
What's to like?
I've always had something of a soft-spot for the Punisher, the first comics character I ever read when I was little. I loved his anti-heroic nature, something which marked him out from the likes of Spider-Man, Thor and the rest of the Marvel universe. Worried that his darker side wouldn't appear in a movie, I was pleased to see that The Punisher makes little effort to disguise Frank's perverted pursuit of justice. The film is loaded with violence in almost every scene and Jane's portrayal, while lacking the physicality the role requires, adequately demonstrates the internal conflict of the character - a generally good man forced to do despicable things, causing untold damage to his psyche.
Travolta's slimy mob boss might be a poor substitute for the character's arch nemesis Jigsaw but Nash is perfectly cast as the hulking Russian, delivering one of the most brutal fist-fights I can recall seeing in any film outside of Asian cinema. The film lacks the explosive razzmatazz of later MCU films like Iron Man or Avengers Assemble but that isn't what the Punisher is about. It should be low-budget, more adult and much darker and for fans of the character, this film should do the trick.
- Jane trained with US Navy SEALs for seven months and gained 20 lbs of muscle for the role. Initially, Jane turned the role down twice but changed his mind after researching the character, realising that the role was not one of a superhero.
- Shooting on location in Tampa had its ups and downs. The city's downtown district has no residential areas, meaning that the streets were deserted in time for shooting. But the area is prone to storms and that summer was the wettest since 1890.
- The original script called for Frank's sidekick, hacker Microchip, to make an appearance but this was written out by Hensleigh who hated the character. Hensleigh later said that the character wasn't in keeping with the vigilante spirit of the Punisher. Microchip does appear in Punisher: War Zone, played by Wayne Knight.
What's not to like?
Sadly, the film is almost completely unmemorable in every other aspect. The action scenes don't really provide anything we haven't seen before and the story veers from one such scene to the next with little exposition given in between. Jane and Travolta feel slightly miscast, which doesn't help things and aside from Nash, the supporting cast are pretty forgettable as well. The film does nothing to engage you or reward you for your interest, settling instead on being a largely humourless affair with grim torture scenes and shootouts to pad out the running time.
I think the problem with The Punisher is the character itself. The Punisher always felt like a parody of action movie heroes like Die Hard's John McClane, much like how Judge Dredd was originally conceived in 2000 AD. In the comics, that approach works because the medium is different and the character can get away with much more. But when inserted back into movies again, the character has nothing new to say and reverts into becoming the very thing they intended to parody. This is why none of the three Punisher films have ever really worked but the MCU TV show, with Castle played by Jon Bernthal, works much better. It can dig a little deeper into Castle's twisted psychology whereas a film has just two hours to tell its story and instead focuses on the violence. The Punisher may appear a one-dimensional character but he poses an interesting philosophical question: how far is too far in order to pursue justice? Is it right to become a criminal yourself in order to see justice fulfilled? These ideas are never given due prominence in The Punisher and as a result, the film is just one long, depressing cycle of violence and retribution.
Should I watch it?
While the film may have its fans, The Punisher feels a long way from the exciting and amazing world we see today in the MCU. Instead of being a thorough examination of the character, the film is one endless parade of bloody escapades with nothing to make it stand out from the myriad of action movies Hollywood produces. Miscast and mishandled by Hensleigh, this film almost feels like a punishment itself.
Great For: Tampa residents, action fans with low expectations, forgiving fans of the character
Not So Great For: fans of the MCU, younger viewers, anyone hoping for something bigger
What else should I watch?
1989's The Punisher is a faintly ridiculous outing, ditching many of the character's recognisable traits and focusing instead of Dolph Lundgren gunning down as many extras / bad guys as possible. As for Punisher: War Zone, Ray Stevenson takes over the role and while he looks more like the part, the film once again settles for being a straight-forward shooter pitching Castle against the mob. At least it had the good grace to include Wayne Knight's Microchip and Dominic West's Jigsaw.
With Marvel now under the banner of the House Of Mouse (aka Disney), it's unlikely we'll see a big-screen outing for such a violent character any time soon. Bernthal's portrayal in the TV show is good but where are the action heroes for grown-ups? Do we have to make-do with the deliberately baiting Deadpool or Hugh Jackson's swansong as Wolverine, Logan? Both are very different from the clean-cut films usually part of the MCU and offer arguably a more grown-up experience. Although if anybody watches Deadpool thinking it's grown-up, I suggest that they might need to grow up themselves.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox
Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on May 17, 2018:
Solid retrospective as always. I prefer Punisher: War Zone because it goes for more over-the-top crazy action and style.
Keith Abt from The Garden State on May 17, 2018:
This one was slightly better than the Dolph Lundgren "Punisher," but not much.
They finally got him right in "War Zone" but by that time nobody was paying attention.