In Hollywood’s seemingly neverending quest to successfully transfer Marvel Comic’s The Punisher to celluloid, we eventually come to it’s second attempt in 2004. Hower, instead of just plonking a version of the character in a typical action situation like the Dolph Lundgren shaped version, this attempt not only acts as an origin story but actually tries to adapt the story Welcome Back Frank from Garth Ennis’ legendary run on the character. It’s a damn good plan, too as Ennis’ time with Frank Castle revolutionised the character, utiziling the scribe’s caustic wit and brutal toilet humor to finally give the title a voice worth listening to and first time director Jonathan Hensleigh (scriptwriter of such 90’s explosion showcases as Die Hard With A Vengeance and Armageddon) seemed like the right guy to nail it.
The budget said otherwise…
Frank Castle is ex military and current undercover cop and after his last gig – portraying a flouncy German broker to a drug deal gone bad – he is more than ready to hang up his badge for good and settle down with his family (his dad is an alarmingly leathery Roy Schieder) in Tampa Bay. However, proving that no good drug bust goes unpunished, his entire family is marked for death by omnipotent crime boss Howard Saint (a grumpy John Travolta) and his wife due to the unpleasant nature of one of his twin sons catching a nasty case of dead during that aforementioned drug deal. Luckily for Saint (and tragically for everyone else) the Castles are having a family reunion with virtually every living name on their family tree in attendance and so a slaughter ensues which ultimately leaves Frank a widower, an orphan, one dead son and a sizable hole in his chest.
After recuperating, Castle elects to go on a one man rampage to punish those responsible by hitting Saint’s money, destroying his product and… gradually accumulating parking tickets to implicate his wife in an affair? Uh… ok then. Whatever works I guess…
When he’s not chipping away at the foundation of a marriage of two confirmed psychopaths, Frank hangs out in a shitty apartment trying to ignore his oddball neighbours despite them all wanting him to join them for a meal. However when Saint sends a variety of killers to eliminate Castle (including Johnny Cash wannabe Harry Heck and Soviet brick shit house The Russian) can mousey Joan, overweight Mr Bumpo and twentysoming burnout Spacker Dave hope to be of aid?
When I watch an adaptation of a comics character I have a great affinity for I always find it helps to look on the bright side and try not to be too critical and when you squint your eyes just right, Punisher ’04 just squeaks by as probably the best of Frank’s trio of movie efforts.
It does this by trying to make actual characters out of the usual freaks and bottom feeders that usually populate the seedy universe of The Punisher, but oddly enough is the only screen version of the character that’s also an origin story. Getting to know Frank before his life turning into steam guano gives lead Thomas Jane something to work with more than being just a stoney faced wrecking machine and until Netflix cast Jon Bernthal in the role, was probably the most relatable. Now, I understand that as a Punisher fan, Frank is not SUPPOSED to be relatable but we’ve got a whole film to sit through here. If you wanted to transfer over the blank faced assasin who’s internal rage burns colder than an ice age, you might as well make him a Jason Vorhees type killer where he treats members of organized crime like vacationing teens (which, by the way, I would LOVE). No, if we have to spend two hours with this guy, we need something to cling onto and Jane is a great choice as further voicing the character in a video game and popping up in fan film Dirty Laundry would further attest). In fact a scene ripped directly from the late, great Steve Dillon’s artwork from Welcome Back Frank may still be the greatest movie of on screen Punisher history ever. The scene, where he squares off against mountainous hitman The Russian, which involves everything from a fridge to a toilet being used as a weapon, is literally pitch perfect with the tar black humor and brutal action balanced exquisitely.
Of course, bright sides only get you so far until realism rears its ugly head a boots you square in the plums and due to various factors (budget, directorial inexperience), when The Punisher isn’t focused solely on it’s goal it’s frequently a bit boring. Tampa, while cheaper than New York, is simply NOT an adequate stage to set Castle’s misadventures in and the movie’s focus on the peripheral characters, while well meaning, often slow things to a crawl but the real problem here is Frank’s plan. Any other story featuring Marvel’s gun toting psycho would have him spend the movie tearing through the various villains like hurricane full of buzz saws and if it had used that template along with it’s character work we really might have had something special but Castle’s slow burning plot to frame various members of Saint’s inner circle so to turn their boss against them is really complicated, unnecessarily slow and frustratingly shit. The final, frenzied culling of Saint’s tattered crew steps up things considerably as is the hilariously overblown act of Frank’s final, fiery revenge against Saint but the film drags when it should sprint and ultimately feels more like a good try rather than the exhilarating, frenetic touchdown fans were hoping for.
A slightly forgettable experience (if it wasn’t a Punisher movie, you’d probably never have noticed it) with redeeming high points and a credible lead, this is mid-level Marvel and a decent story of crime and Punisher…
I didn’t know this movie existed! For a good reason, it seems… Thank you for your great review!