The Punisher (2004) — A disappointing take on a classic character

“Maybe he’s an artist.”

Kyle’s rating: Nowhere near as good as the other Marvel film adaptations, yet somehow better

Kyle’s review: The Punisher is not a great movie. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. It is a film adaptation of another Marvel Comics character, and in terms of acting and directing and technical merit, it is above Daredevil and below the rest, I suppose. It’s a definite step up from the 1989 version of The Punisher, which starred Dolph Lundgren and was fun in a “hey I’m home sick from school and The Punisher is on!” kind of way. But it can’t compare to the production or story values of Spider-Man or X-Men or X2. It just can’t, I tell you! The 2004 Punisher is sort of a big disappointment, and I can’t recommend it to you at all.

Tough first paragraph, eh? But it’s all true. I can’t recommend The Punisher because we mostly get the tortured and largely indestructible (though not invulnerable) Frank Castle being put through the wringer as he loses his family (and I mean down to distant cousins) in a horrible massacre, and comes really close to death himself, but recovers and devises a fiendish plan to make those responsible for the death of his wife and son and parents and in-laws and cousins and nieces etc. pay. Punishment doesn’t come until like the last half hour; until then we get a couple cool action pieces including a big-time throw-down between Castle and the Russian (a huge Kevin Nash). We get John Travolta as the main villain who gets manipulated by Castle and has funny hair, we get some inappropriate surrogate family stuff from the freaky neighbors Castle inherits with his cheapo squalid apartment.

This isn’t the Punisher as he should be for 75% of the running time, and then when he seeks punishment (not revenge, mind you, that’s a human emotion) it’s strangely lacking in drama. Even when he punishes Travolta (you knew that would happen, so don’t think it’s a total spoiler, please) it’s almost a letdown. On the bridge for the sweeping final shot, we finally get a glimpse of the Punisher and realize what the criminals of the Marvel cinematic universe are in for now, but then the credits roll. Denied! We better hope there is a sequel, or else we’ll never get our Punisher movie!

So I’m not going to tell you that you should go see The Punisher, because it’s not all that and you’ll probably be disappointed. Having said that, let me tell you that I went to see The Punisher on opening day (and even if I had seen Kill Bill Vol. 1 yet and would have been in a position to see Vol. 2, I still would have seen The Punisher first. Comic book geeks unite!), decided I liked it enough, went to San Diego the next day and bought a Punisher movie logo black shirt to put on when it got cold, felt like a total bad-ass, and then on Monday pushed a whole bunch of finals and graduation stuff out of my schedule so I could see The Punisher again. ‘Cause, man! It’s a pretty good movie!

But see, I’m willing to relax my standards and be like “sure, it’s not high drama or even medium drama, but it’s a comic book movie with one of the characters I’ve been reading about for years and years and in terms of being cool and fun, it’s fabulous!” Thomas Jane does a great Frank Castle and a better Punisher, and the rest of the cast is great as either future corpses or good guys Castle doesn’t shoot. There are comic book references galore, mostly to Garth Ennis’ recent semi-revamp of The Punisher in the story now known as “Welcome Back, Frank” but also including a torture scene straight out of the first issue of The Punisher: War Zone. There are some big faults in here, including making the character of Joan hot and making a lot of the dialogue sound like a five-year-old infiltrated the set at one point and scribbled all over the shooting script.

Like I said, it’s fun violence and as the origin story for the film Punisher (in the comics he’s a Vietnam veteran, but that would make him really old) it works. For me. If you can sit there and go, “Gee, I’ve seen this in a ton of revenge movies but that’s Frank Castle, soon to be the Punisher, up there and they got the skull shirt right, so bring it on!” then go ahead and check out The Punisher. As with any comic movie there are already a billion reviews of the movie out there by professionals and freaks and punks alike, so check those out if you want 100 second opinions. But if you want a moody punishment flick with a moody and freakin’ tough main character who goes on a merciless rampage right at the end and thereby drops a hint at the absolute awesome sequels that should come in the future, then don’t delay!

It’s The Punisher, folks: a guy in a skull shirt who goes around punishing the criminals of the world with every weapon imaginable. Like Batman, only with guns and a death wish and no moral code. Yeah! The Punisher is so fun to me that I’ll buy it on DVD and watch it a lot, and I’m thinking of buying the soundtrack just because it sounded like it would be nice loud workout music. Kick ass! Go Punisher go!

Didja notice?

  • Like I (Kyle!) said, there are a ton of faithful comic book references here. Harry Heck is one of the hit men hired to off the Punisher in Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” story, and that’s where the Russian is from as well. They did a pretty good job of blending in comic book elements into this “realistic” take on The Punisher, though I miss Ma Gnucci and her treatment at the hands of the polar bears. Maybe next time!
  • Castle puts a lot of work into his car, and gets to drive it only like a few times. But he picks up a nice one to customize. Thanks, Harry!
  • There are apparently no cops in Tampa, but there are weapons stored in easy places for Castle to pick up a ton! Actually, making Castle a former FBI/cop/whatever makes it more believable that he’d have access to tons of guns and equipment, since he could call in old favors or he’d just know where and what to raid.
  • When his neighbors are checking into Castle’s background, the fact that he worked “CTU” (counter terrorism unit) is a big deal. This is undoubtedly an effect of the hit show 24, where Jack Bauer is a kick-ass CTU agent.
  • Actually, the Punisher might be a mutant whose power is taking a ton of damage yet still looking really nice and totally devoid of bruising. Must be nice!
  • The scene where Dave explains why he didn’t give up Castle was cheesy in the movie, because the family angle came out of nowhere. If he had said “because you’re a good guy” instead of “family” imagine how much more ironic and morally ambiguous that would have made everything. It’s not all black and white: The Punisher is in the gray area, people!

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