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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.