We continue our pre Captain America viewing with a character that is the complete antithesis of the Star Spangled Avenger. Is this the best Punisher so far?
Who made it?: Jonathan Hensleigh (Director/Co-Writer), Michael France (Co-Writer), Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd (Producers), Lionsgate/Artisan.
Who’s in it?: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn, Ben Foster, Samantha Mathis.
Tag-line: “He has a plan…he has an enemy…this Summer…he will execute them both.”
IMDb rating: 6.3/10.
Frank Castle carved his own niche in the Marvel universe. A true anti-hero, he has murdered countless criminals over the decades, with no sign of remorse. A mere mortal, he relies on weaponry, tactics and military instincts to get the job done. There’s nothing “super” about him, including his costume. Instead of eye-catching spandex, he dons a cheap t-shirt emblazoned with a white skull – a symbol which has become more identifiable than the character himself.
The Punisher was created by Gerry Conway in 1974, at a time when revenge stories like Death Wish were all the rage. The decade was notable for a rise in hyper-violent entertainment, and Marvel comics quickly followed suit. Castle’s only desire is revenge and his methods are relentlessly brutal. Conway had created a lethal killing machine that provided a contrast to Stan Lee’s fantastical do-gooders. Which isn’t to say that he lacks a moral code; he’s your friendly neighbourhood sociopath.
Marvel have accidentally created a “trilogy” of Punisher films, beginning with a 1989 straight-to-video effort starring Dolph Lundgren that is best left forgotten. Even Lundgren, who is hardly the most discerning actor, admitted it was terrible. His portrayal bore little resemblance to the comic incarnation, even jettisoning the skull design. 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, with Thor‘s Ray Stevenson in the title role, is the most recent attempt; a gore-splattered cartoon of a film that was hard to take seriously.
The middle entry in this trio, simply titled The Punisher, is easily the best and most successful attempt at bringing the vigilante to the screen.
It marked the directorial debut of Jonathan Hensleigh, who is best known as a screenwriter, having penned Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon and Jumanji. Despite these blockbusters on his CV, he was given a tight $30 million budget to achieve his vision. Hensleigh used the money well, attracting an above-average cast to give the film some credibility. Thomas Jane was the first and only actor pursued for the part, an underrated star who has yet to make the A-list transition he deserves. The most famous face comes in the form of John Travolta, who gleefully hams it up as crime lord Howard Saint. Their involvement was instrumental in getting the film made.
Hensleigh’s script (co-written by Michael France) took a few liberties with the source material, altering Castle’s professional history and moving the location from the cost-prohibitive New York to the sun-drenched streets of Tampa, Florida. The gritty feel of NY might have been more appropriate, since The Punisher often feels like a throwback exploitation picture. In his DVD commentary, Hensleigh stated that his stylistic choices were very much a nod to the work of Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel, and you can see those influences on the screen.
The film draws heavily on two comics in particular – The Punisher: Year One and Welcome Back Frank, but Hensleigh also takes scenes from a variety of titles in the character’s storied history (Marvel Preview Presents: The Punisher #2, Marvel Super Action Featuring: The Punisher #1, The Punisher War Zone and The Punisher War Journal). Despite some superficial changes, it’s a very faithful adaptation.
With his days as an undercover agent finally behind him, Castle reunites with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son (Marcus Johns), planning to live out their days in seclusion. But Frank doesn’t count on the intervention of Saint and his wife Livia (Laura Harring), who hold him responsible for the death of their son during a botched sting operation. The pair demand that Castle’s entire family is killed, an act which is soon carried out. But Castle survives the assassination attempt. Haunted by memories of his murdered family, Castle is consumed by a need for revenge, becoming “The Punisher”, acting as judge, jury and executioner in his crusade. It escalates into a one man war, which won’t stop until justice has been served.
It’s a well-worn formula, indeed. No points for guessing how this film ends. The Punisher may be uninspired, but it’s hugely entertaining due to a game cast and crisp direction. Hensleigh embraces the conventions of the genre and delivers set pieces that feel authentic. This is what you demand from a good, old-fashioned action film: guns, explosions, fights and the odd comedic moment to lighten the mood. The script may be threadbare, and the plot merely functional, but the action really works. CGI is used very sparingly, with the filmmakers relying on stunt performers and practical effects wherever possible. Such a retro aesthetic is refreshing. Like an 80’s Schwarzenegger movie, The Punisher is also willing to get nasty.
In fact, it’s a little hard to ignore the repugnant streak running throughout the film. It’s so downbeat, with sporadic bursts of hard-hitting violence that certainly deserve the 18 rating. The attack on Castle’s family is one such sequence – people are shot at point-blank range, one baddy is sent hurtling through the air while on fire, and Castle’s wife and child are mowed down by a truck; events which are given extra clout by Conrad W. Hall’s steady camerawork, and a sparse, almost silent score. And that’s all before Frank begins his revenge, picking off Saint’s lackeys one-by-one, as he inches closer to the man himself.
Castle is a difficult protagonist to sympathise with. Precious little time is spent on his character before the attack and we never “know” him. For the remainder of the film, Jane wears a permanent scowl, rarely showing compassion to anyone. Of course, this is the Punisher as seen in the comics, and my comments are no black mark against Jane’s performance. The actor does the best he can with such an anaemic script, trying to fill the void between grunts and show real emotion. Jane’s portrayal is pretty much perfect; the character fits him like a glove, not just look-wise but in the way he delivers his lines. You can close your eyes and listen to his dialogue and just imagine the scene playing out in comic book form. While the screenplay lets him down, he carries the film with admirable intensity.
I also have to give credit to the trio of Rebecca Romijn, Ben Foster and John Pinette, who play Castle’s neighbours in a scum-ridden apartment block. Waitress Joan, “Spacker” Dave and Bumpo try their best to welcome Castle with open arms, but he’s reluctant to join their ranks. His mission is the only thing he cares about, but in true cinematic cliché, he later realises the value of their friendship. They also add a welcome jolt of humour to the film and help to humanize the lead character.
Travolta seems to be having fun as Saint, with a leisurely and restrained performance that never resorts to the OTT theatrics of his Broken Arrow days. He seems to relish playing villains. Occasionally, you can see him riffing on his role as Castor Troy in Face/Off, charting a slow descent into madness. Saint is a complex character, who shows devotion to his wife, grief for his son, and a lack of vicious cruelty. He doesn’t seem evil, and it was his wife who ordered the murder of Castle’s entire family, not him. In fact, the true villainy is left to the reliable Will Patton, who is convincing as Saint’s sadistic right-hand man.
The Punisher isn’t high art, and while it ranks pretty low on the list of Marvel movies, Hensleigh’s film is efficient entertainment. It ticks all the right boxes and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better critically and commercially. Fans of action cinema will be pleased, and it is a decent primer for those interested in the source material. Give it a spin.
Best Heroic Moment: Other than killing every bad guy on-screen, Frank’s most heroic deed is when he comes to the aid of Joan, who is being harassed by her ex-boyfriend. It has no relation to his mission – he just does it because it’s right. His one truly selfless act in the film.
Best Villainous Moment: Obviously it’s the massacre of the Castle dynasty. I don’t think you can get more villainous then wiping out a man’s entire family, second cousins included! However, the scene in which Will Patton’s henchman goes to work on Dave’s piercings with a pair of pliers runs a close second.
Most Bad-Ass Moment: Hmm, a few scenes to choose from here. I would say it’s during the fight between Frank and Harry Heck, who is one of Saint’s assassins. A Johnny Cash lookalike with a penchant for singing, he chases Castle down and appears to have the upper-hand. Castle pulls out a knife, to which Harry retorts: “You are one dumb son of a bitch, bringing a knife to a gunfight.” The knife ends up in his throat.
Cheesiest Moment: “God’s gonna sit this one out.”
Worst Romantic Moment: Joan attempts to get Frank’s attention by cooking him a surprise meal, in a scene which gets more awkward as it goes along.
Best Self-Mocking Pun: The closest the movie gets is Frank’s climactic monologue, which is pure comic book schlock: “Those who do evil to others – the killers, the rapists, psychos, sadists – you will come to know me well. Frank Castle is dead. Call me… The Punisher. ”
The Obligatory Stan Lee Cameo: Nada. Stan only appears in films featuring characters he co-created.
Undoubtedly the fight between Frank and hit man “The Russian” (wrestler Kevin Nash). It’s easily the highlight of the film, as Nash throws Castle around his apartment, through walls and down a flight of stairs. This skirmish is made all the more appealing thanks to Hensleigh’s use of opera music, which plays in the next room. If only the rest of the film was so creative…
No embed available, so you can view the scene here.
- The Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February, 1974).
- In order to update the comic book to present day, Castle’s military record was changed from Vietnam to the Gulf War.
- Jane trained with the United States Navy SEALs for nearly seven months, gaining more than 20 pounds of muscle in the process.
- The first comic book adaptation since Blade (1998) to earn an R-rating.
- Travolta allowed Jane to receive top-billing so he could gain more recognition as an actor.
- Total body count: 45.