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November 14, 2011

Movie Mondays: The Punisher (2004)

THE PUNISHER!
THE PUNISHER!

So far, it looks promising

Title: The Punisher (2004)
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writers:
Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France, Based on the character created by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita Sr, as well as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Distributed By:
Artisan Entertainment, Lionsgate, Valhalla Motion Pictures, Marvel Enterprises
Starring:
Tom Jane, John Travolta, Roy Scheider, Rebecca Romijn, Laura Harring, Keven Nash
Release Date:
April 16, 2004
MPAA:
Rated R

Hey there everybody! Welcome to part TWO of our month long look into the gritty, seedy, violent world of Frank Castle…otherwise known as The Punisher!  This week we’ll examine the second attempt to bring The Punisher to the big screen, with the 2004 film featuring Tom Jane as the troubled violent anti-hero!  Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! And be sure to come back  for further installments in our tribute to Marvel’s ultra-violent crime fighter! It’d be a real crime not to. And we all know how The Punisher feels about crime. Sorry, I couldn’t resist a chance for a bad joke!

The skull!

Luckily Frank already had a Punisher t-Shirt from Hot Topic!

We have here the story of Frank Castle Jr. (Tom Jane). An FBI agent who formerly worked with a Counter Terrorism Unit, who, while operating an undercover trafficking sting, gets the son of a Gangster, Howard Saint (John Travolta), killed. To exact revenge, the gangster’s wife (Laura Harring) orders Howard to kill Frank’s ENTIRE family (both his biological relatives and his wife’s relatives) during a huge family reunion. Frank is left for dead, only to survive and become the one-man-army of a killing machine known as The Punisher.

Except…not really.
He isn’t referred to as The Punisher until the very last line of the film. It takes the first 40 minutes of the film for him to actually become The Punisher. He spends most of that time not punishing people, but generally just sort of causing mischief and in-fighting amongst the villains. Oh, and drinking. He sits around and does a lot of drinking.

OH HELL!!

This scene shouldn’t make me giggle. But it does. So…. Let the giggling commence!

He gets into one real fight during the film, and two minor scraps before that. Not that I’m bashing this movie for not being mindless violence. I love character development and a good story. But the one real fight he has, wherein the villains send a hulking Russian assassin after him, could have been epic. Instead it’s played up for laughs, with Frank making silly “uh oh” faces and trying to crawl away from the assassin, with slapstick moments like The Russian playing baseball with a grenade. All the while the famous opera canzone, “La donna è mobile,” is playing in the background while his neighbors sing and dance to the song.

The other problem here is that the other scraps had great potential for being very serious and dramatic fights, but they were short little throwaway fights with a lot of build up and no payoff. One where we get homage to an old school Western movie style stand-off, and the other where we’re treated to a Johnny Cash-wannabe assassin who writes and sings a ballad to The Punisher before attempting to kill him (and the song is one of the best parts of the film, by the way).

More Skull!

This movie comes with a good supporting cast and a new reason for the Skull shirt (his son buys it for him).

That’s not to say it’s all bad.  The acting is great.  Mostly.   The musical score, the production values, the character development/interaction.  Most of the actors bring their A-game to the production. This is especially true of the actors portraying side characters like Will Patton, Ben Foster, Roy Scheider, and Rebecca Romijn. But Tom Jane seems to be rather bland throughout most of the film, and John Travolta spends most of the movie overacting.

The musical score by Carlo Siliotto is quite fantastic, to be sure.  However, it loses points for sounding too much like a Western.

I thought this was THE PUNISHER…not THE STALKER.

In regards to the overall quality of this film, it’s decent, to say the least.  But in regards to this film as an adaptation, this movie really managed to screw up a lot. It royally screwed up the origin story; instead of his wife and kids getting killed for witnessing a mob hit, his ENTIRE extended family is murdered because Frank Castle got a mobster’s son killed. They changed the setting from New York to Florida, and made Frank’s family home somewhere in Puerto Rico. It managed to take the Russian fight and make it stupid/silly. The Punisher is portrayed as suicidal and possibly an alcoholic. The movie tries way too hard to be a 70s action film/western. It doesn’t retain any of the dark humor of the comic. For a two hour movie, he spends about 20 minutes being The Punisher. And when he does, he fights a singing cowboy/troubadour/hitman! (I couldn’t make that up if I wanted to)

I liked it better in THE CROW. Plus, how did he keep the other cars from blowing up?

And finally, the film’s climactic scene, where he takes out the bad guy…features a blatant rip-off from The Crow, wherein he makes his logo appear in a fiery explosion he set up…by causing a specific pattern (and specific number) of cars to explode in a full parking lot.

I understood that this film was a throwback to classic action films, combining elements of Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Mad Max, and The Dollars Trilogy. Problem is… it’s NOT as good as any of those, and it’s certainly NOT a Punisher movie. If it had been called something else, and didn’t bother with the Skull Logo at all, I’d have never ever known it was based on The Punisher comic books. If someone could go back in time and rename this movie, I’d probably enjoy it a little bit more.

Enjoy this section of the movie. ‘Cause it’s over in about 10 minutes.

Judging the film as an adaptation of the comic, I’d give it a 3.
But as a film in general, overall, I’d give it a solid 5 out of 10.

Be sure to check out next week’s installment where we discuss the next attempt to bring Frank Castle to the movies, with the 2008 movie, Punisher: War Zone.

Aaron Nicewonger
aarongni@gmail.com
Aaron@comicattack.net

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32 Comments


  1. Andrew Hudson

    The problem with The Punisher, is it was made during the early 00’s. Back when film companies thought that all comic book films should appeal to the whole family. And while it was violent at times, the whole feel was too happy and wholesome. Except in the last thirty minutes, when things finally got dark. Had the whole film been like the last thirty or so minutes, it would’ve been a classic.

    I was bothered by how they killed off The Punisher’s entire family. It wasn’t like some crossfire “accident” like in the comics but actually on purpose and right in front of him. The part that bothered me wasn’t because it was violent but because Thomas Jane seemed to play it off like it was nothing. If someone had their whole family killed in front of them, they wouldn’t just be acting moody and drinking a scotch or two.

    The first time I saw it, I was entertained. But the next few times I saw it a lot of the flaws were painfully obvious. Such as certain plot holes and the fact that Frank Castle revealed himself to the public and was out in the open. Rather than the comic book Frank Castle, who was like Edmond Dantes with a machine gun.


  2. Mike V

    It’s not a perfect movie, but in my view it’s the better of the three movies. Though I don’t agree with some of your issues with the movie, like the whole suicidal alcoholic complaint. That bit is coming straight from the Year One comic book, while not an accurate adaptation I thought it more or less captured the tone/feeling of that particular story.

    The Florida setting was a shame, but according to the filmmakers it was the cheapest place to film for them, so I can’t fault them for that one. Plus, Florida does play a part in the Punisher’s history, the character did do go down there to kill the men responsible for his families murder in one of his earlier comic stories.

    I thought it had a decent amount of dark humor, maybe not enough for you, but there were some nice darkly humorous lines peppered throughout the movie. I thought the Russian fight was a pretty perfect bit of dark comedy too, and it was basically verbatim from the comic. That scene was meant to be played for laughs in both cases. Plus, gotta give respect to Tom Jane for nearly breaking his neck launching himself through a fake wall and into a brick one.

    Yeah, no one really cared for the flaming skull bit, even the director, who I believe was made to include that bit by Marvel and the studio.

    And if you thought Travolta was overacting, wait till you see basically everyone in PWZ. Make him seem subdued (which he kinda is, considering he’s chewed scenery more in his other movies).


  3. Moses

    I thought this was a decent action movie. But my biggest problem was the villain. Frank Castle’s nemesis was a money launderer. Could there be any less evil/threatening/sadistic type of criminal?


  4. Mike V

    @Andrew Hudson

    I don’t think the movie has a happy wholesome feel to it all, and I don’t think Jane played the death of his family off as nothing. He was pissed off/suicidal/delved into alcoholism – that seems about right when it comes grieving. Also, it was Wild Turkey and not scotch, it’s small but awesome detail (I like Wild Turkey).


  5. Billy

    I gotta say that I really like this flick. Now, keep in mind, I’m not a hardcore Punisher fan. I think if I was, I would have been disappointed slightly. If I see this on while cruising the channels, I stop every time. 😀


  6. Aaron Nicewonger

    I think Andrew is kinda right about it being at least “toned down” while not necessarily happy/wholesome.

    And @ Moses:
    Yeah… seriously. A money launderer. Wooo! LOL
    And it’s his wife that orders the hit on his family. The wife is the real villain. Have HER kill John Travolta, then blow HER up.

    And Mike is right, IMO, about him not playing it off as nothing.

    But he seemed more antisocial than anything else.

    Also, my 2 biggest problems with the death of the family are as follows:
    1) His ENTIRE family?! Really? Overkill
    2) His father, and son are killed. But the only one he seems to react toward is his wife. Even in flashbacks. Even when seeing his dead sons body, he continues to call out his wife’s name. Not BOTH.


    • Mike V

      Have you seen the extended cut? The added scenes actually end up making Castle seem more like a sociopath. They really should have been left in and had other bits excised from the film.


  7. Aaron Nicewonger

    Another response to Mike V’s earlier comment:

    I don’t mind suicidal. But I do mind alcoholic. He’s at war. He needs to stay sharp. He wouldn’t/shouldn’t be getting drunk all the time.

    Also, I generally dislike “The Punisher: Year One” and “Born” and almost the majority of the Garth Ennis run.

    As for dark humor, I can only think of one moment. The Popsicle/blow torch scene.

    The Russian scene wasn’t really verbatim, especially in the literal sense.
    In the comic, most of the humor stems from the fact that The Russian won’t shut up, and is completely obsessed with American Pop Culture.
    In the movie it’s slapstick and goofy faces.


    • Mike V

      Yeah, but he isn’t stumbling around drunk. When he was on his recons, or fucking up Saints business, and on his final assault he’s on top of his game.

      For the dark humor, I was thinking more lines of dialogue peppered throughout the movie, like:

      Frank Castle: Howard Saint. Howard Saint!
      [Saint stops fleeing]
      Frank Castle: You took everything from me.
      Howard Saint: You killed my son.
      John Saint: [from inside the club] NO…!
      [muffled explosion]
      Frank Castle: Both of them.

      Accountant #1: You know whose money this is? You know whose building this is?
      The Punisher: Howard Saint’s.
      Accountant #2: He’s gonna fuck your life up.
      The Punisher: He already fucked my life up.

      And there are few others I can’t seem to find.


  8. Aaron Nicewonger

    At any rate, thanks for all the feedback. I’d love to hear anything else you have to say.
    I always welcome debate/discussion.

    I think it’s a blast hearing what others think about this stuff!



  9. I was mildly entertained when I started to watch this movie and by the time the cars blew up to make the fire skull I just rolled my eyes and asked why I sat through this movie. That scene was best in The Crow and mediocre in The Punisher and Daredevil movies that copied it.


  10. norse_sage

    I think I hate this movie.
    I prefer it to the 1989 movie, but not by nearly as much as I should, given that it was released in 2004.

    You hit the nail on the head in your review when you said that it’s not a Punisher movie. It’s not. It is writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s personal love letter and tribute to the cinema of the seventies, one which has regrettably been forced into a Punisher mold. Sadly, Hensleigh just did not get the Punisher, or he is or what makes him tick.

    The pointlessly altered origin is what kills the movie for me. Maybe Hensleigh thought killing Frank’s entire extended family would make for a bigger impact on screen, but instead he strips the Punisher of his entire raison d’être.

    In the comics, Frank Castle and his family by accident and trough no fault their own found themselves in the firing range between rivalling mobsters. It was a pure accident. If it hadn’t been the Castles, it could just as well have been somebody else who ended up getting shot. If the shooters who pulled the triggers had called in sick that day, some other mobsters would have been there and pulled the trigger istead. CRIME as an entity is what killed a random family that got caught in the crossfire that day. That the family in question was Frank Castle’s, was entirely up to chance. This gives Frank Castle a philosophical justification to declare war on CRIME.

    Contrast that to the 2004 movie. Frank Castle is a G-Man, one who actually gets Howard Saint’s son killed on his watch through his own hissyfit when undercover and overall poorly planned operation. This in turn leads Howard Saint go after Castle, and in accordance with his wifes wishes, he kills the entire extended family. Crime did not kill Frank Castle’s family. Howard Saint did, and he did it as a direct consequence of Frank Castle’s own actions. As such, Castle has every right to take out Saint, but has no justification to declare war on crime. After Saint his dead, he has no purpose. This is very clearly set up.

    And indeed. After he has killed Saint, he is about to kill himself, when he is a change of heart. Then, out of nowhere, completely out of the blue, for no reason at all, he decides to go after those who do evil to others and call himself the Punisher. There is NOTHING in the movie that has set this up. Just a pathetic add-on since it was supposed to be a Punisher movie, afterall.

    About the skull – While the movie does have a skull, it means nothing. A gift from his late son. Tactical purpose from the comic Imagine if his son had given him a smiley shirt instead of a skullshirt!

    The movie is such a wasted opportunity. Jane does a good enough job, but it doesn’t help when the script and direction is so subpar.


    • Mike V

      @norse_sage

      But it’s really not the randomness of the act that drives the Punisher, it’s the failure of the justice system. Had the police done job and arrested the people responsible, then there probably wouldn’t be a Punisher, but because the justice system fails him he decides to take matters into his own hands. And the movie making him a G-man, adds an extra gut punch to it all.

      And the skull, it actually does play into the tactical purpose from the comic as you put it. When he’s doing his final assault , a guy shoots him close range with a shotgun a few times, and never goes for the head, just the skull on the vest. Which is more than you could say for PWZ, where the skull really serves no purpose, as you can barely see it (and every time he gets shot he gets hit in the back).


  11. norse_sage

    I wish it was possible to edit posts for typos, btw.


  12. Aaron Nicewonger

    Couldn’t agree more.
    Thanks for the input/feedback.
    And thanks for the kind words.

    Also,
    “The movie is such a wasted opportunity. Jane does a good enough job, but it doesn’t help when the script and direction is so subpar.”

    Exactly.

    And yeah. The “I’m suicidal! No I’m not! I’ll become a superhero!” ending seemed completely tacked on.
    Even the way it was filmed.
    Why would Frank Castle pull over on the side of a bridge to start monologuing? Why not just have him think all that while driving the car?

    This film could have been so much better.

    For a send up to the action films of the 70s and a send up to old-school westerns, it’s not bad. As a PUNISHER film, not so much.


    • Mike V

      There was an element of the suicide scene that was cut out for whatever reason, it was suppose to be scene of him and his wife talking before he’s goes to war, enlightened his choice to not pull the trigger.

      And I like the last shot on the bridge, he’s not really monologuing though, that’s supposed to be the final line of his war journal entry that he does before he goes after Saint.



  13. You want to know what a great “Punisher” movie was? Man on Fire (remake w/ Denzelle) and Columbiana.


  14. norse_sage

    @Mike V:

    That the failure of the justice system is what led to him becoming the Punisher is in no way sufficiently set up.

    Firstly, he never gave the system a shot. He, the sole witness who could give a detailed account and who could identify everyone involved did NOTHING AT ALL to help any investigation. Instead, he let the world believe he was dead for eight months before suddenly showing up one day all grumpy because no one had done anything. Maybe if he had actually helped the investigation things would be different, but no. In the comics, Frank Castle did everything he could to help the legal authorities, only after every single chain in the entire judicial system had failed did he take matters into his own hands. No such arch in this movie, it skips all character development and jumps straight to revenge without any real set up towards it.

    Secondly, at no point in the entire movie do we see him addressing the failure of the judicial system beyond his own situation, nor any arch that led him to the logical conclusion that devoting his life to killing criminals as what he must do. It’s just not there. Even taking out the Toro brothers didn’t occur to him.

    On the contrary, the movie set up that he had nothing to live for beyond killing the Saints, and after the that, that good memories can save someone, which he learned from Joan. The natural ending given this setup would be that he found closure, moved on with his life, and maybe, just maybe, he would do so with Joan. Que open ending, fade to black.

    Instead, out of the blue and with no setup what so ever, he decides to become the Punisher, in one of the worst tacked on endings in movie history.

    And any tactical benefit of the skull is coincidental. It was a gift from his son. Had he gotten a smiley t-shirt instead of a skull t-shirt, the painted smiley on the bulletproof vest would have attracted the fire. So while the tactical purpose of the skull was there, it was there by accident. Frank Castle in this movie never chose it for its tactical purposes.


    • Mike V

      With the whole failure of the justice system thing, I was really talking more what drives him in the comics. And I still think it works in the movie, still it’s 8 months and absolutely nothing is done about his family, I think that’s a good enough catalyst for him take matters into his own hands.Plus if you take the extended cut into consideration, they give a bit of a reason as to why he wouldn’t to deal police/FBI, because he feels some sold him out.

      The tactical advantage of the skull is still there regardless of where he got it from. I don’t know in any case where exposition on why he’s wearing the skull on his vest wouldn’t be clunky or out place. At least Hensleigh knew to use it in that way, that’s more than you could say for PWZ, which again serves no purpose.

      Regardless of the flaws (and there are plenty, I know the movie is not perfect), it’s still about man and his extreme reaction to the loss of his family, and that really is a part of the core of what makes the Punisher tick.


  15. Aaron Nicewonger

    Wow.
    I’m so glad people are so passionate about this subject.

    Great points all around guys.


  16. Mike V

    Well, this and Punisher: War Zone are both kinda polarizing films for fans of the character.



  17. The extended cut of the movie keeps a lot more of the Punisher-feel of the comics with a subplot involving his former partner in the FBI. It would be interesting if you did a review of that cut and see how it compares to the theatrical release.


  18. Aaron Nicewonger

    The extended cut is better and worse.
    I felt the subplot did little to advance the plot, or provide any real new/deep characterization.
    The new intro involving Franks Military career makes the movie as a whole slightly better (i.e. more accurate), but it feels tacked on, and being a motion comic detracts from the feel of the rest of the film.
    They just feel like separate things.

    Overall I’d say the extended cut is worse.
    Longer doesn’t make for better. And the intro is tacked on, in an attempt to save face.

    But, hey. That’s just my opinion.


  19. Mike V

    I thought when he finally confronts his ex-partner in the extended cut, it did provide some new characterization into how far over the edge he’s gone. It’s showing how he is seeing things in black-and-white now. And the theatrical cut still references his military background quite a few times, his background as a solider, albeit not a marine is accurate in either cut.

    The Kuwait intro feels tacked on, because it is. Plus Hensleigh said it if was actually shot he wasn’t sure if he would use it as an intro, or dispense the scenes throughout the movie in flashbacks. But, it really seems like it was done for fun, that’s why there is an option to watch the movie with or without it.


  20. Aaron Nicewonger

    “And the theatrical cut still references his military background quite a few times, his background as a solider, albeit not a marine is accurate in either cut.”

    Actually, the film only states that he was part of a Counter Terrorism Unit.
    I think it mentions he did two tours, with the Unit.
    But it doesn’t really go any further than that.
    Unless I’ve started blocking the movie from my memory again. ‘Cause I saw it less than a week ago.

    I’ll go watch again. I could very easily be wrong.


    • Mike V

      Spacker Dave mentions he was a part of the 12th Special Ops CTU, so basically he would have been member of either the Special Forces/Navy SEALs/Delta Force.

      And then there are few nods throughout the movie; like at the beginning his partner toasts him as the finest soldier he’s known, in Glass’ file there’s a photo of him in Kuwait, him dragging out his footlocker from storage, the whole sic vis pacem, para bellum war journal entry, he takes off his dog tags when he’s about commit suicide at the end. I guess some of it might be too subtle for some people, but there’s enough information there to show that the guy was a solider.



      • The Dog Tags, I honestly completely forgot about.
        And the “sic vis pacem, para bellum”.
        The Kuwait photos bit is from the extended cut, though right?
        And in the extended cut, doesn’t he also state that the Latin phrase, he learned in boot camp?

        “Soldier” is subjective, and not an actual reference to the military. Just the FBIs war on crime.

        And, there is no such thing as a “Counter Terrorism Unit”.
        So, the reference in the movie, could be to anything.
        There are Counter-Intelligence Organizations. For instance the Marines have a Counterintelligence/Tactical Human Intelligence group called CI/HUMINT.
        And special units trained to handle terrorist threats.
        But no such “CTU” exists. So, again. Could reference anything.
        Most Counter-terrorism programs assist the military, like organizations like NCIS, which often work with the FBI, which Frank was a member of.
        So, again. Not much to go on there.

        I don’t remember them stating it was the 12th Spec Ops. I remember them stating he did 2 tours, or something like that.

        At any rate.
        There are references to military, specifically with the Dog Tags. But about 30 seconds worth, total.


        • Mike V

          The photo from Kuwait is in the scene where Saint is looking at Castle file. The “sic vis pacem, para bellum” speech is the same in both cuts, both include the “boot Camp Sergeant made us recite it like a prayer” line. It’s more or less the same as the one from the Year One comic.

          When something is referred to as any no. Special Ops, that could usually mean army special forces or what have you. Though when he’s dragging out a foot locker with 12th Special Operations written on it, you gotta assume he was a part of a branch of the military. CTU was just a cheeky reference to 24, but if he was a part of a counter intelligence unit, he would probably have been a SEAL, SF, or Delta, but it is mostly conjecture.

          30 seconds maybe, but still plenty of references, however subtle. But when you compare it to PWZ which has maybe 3 references, a tattoo on Castle arm, Soap mentioning he was a Special Forces instructor, and he eats MREs.


          • Mike V

            Edit: I meant counter terrorism unit, there really needs to be a an edit function.



          • I recall the boot camp bit. I went back and watched it again.

            But yeah.
            PWZ does a MUCH better job of showing you he’s ex-military.

            Neither movie is all that great IMO.
            But I think I still prefer PWZ. But only slightly.


            • Mike V

              I honestly think they’re about the same, both have a character stated their military background in a bit of exposition, with Spacker Dave and Det. Soap, both show a quick photo of him as a soldier. The only difference is Punisher ’04 has a few more subtler references throughout.


  21. norse_sage

    The extended cut is certainly better in that it is less chopped up than the theatrical cut.
    As such, I vastly prefer it to the theatrical cut, and it annoys me still that only the subpar thetrical cut is released on Blu-ray.

    While it does add minor detials and is overall more complete, the extended cut does not fix a single one of my major issues with the movie, which would be the character development and motivation inconsistencies described in earlier posts.



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