Trio Review: The Punisher

Surprise Trio Review!

I figured with Marvel’s Netflix show Daredevil returning to us in March, with the added bonus of The Punisher character making an appearance, I would review all of the Punisher films!
Yes, all. Did you know there’s been three of these things?
In 1989 there was a Punisher film made by an Australian studio staring Dolph Lundgren, long before Marvel had any real Hollywood presence, but after the dynamic Batman film by Tim Burton. After that, during the initial boom of  Marvel movies, Jonathan Hensleigh directed The Punisher, released in 2004 and the film most of us know, designed as an origin story. But again in 2008, Punisher: War Zone was made!

All three have been made by directors who have little directorial projects to their name. One by an editor of The Terminator (and others) another by the writer of Die Hard 3 (and screenplay writer of Jumanji!) and the last by a former Kick Boxing Champion!

So yeah, these films are on pretty even ground for comparison.

Let’s begin!

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The Punisher (1989)

Long, long before Marvel could ever dream of their Cinematic Universe or their Netflix series, Dolph Lundgren embodied their dark and grim character of The Punisher.

Frank Castle is presumed dead after a criminal organisation kills his wife and children. Now he exists only as a vengeful vigilante known as The Punisher, a man lurking in the shadows dealing death to all he sees to be guilty. But while he targets the organisation responsible for his family’s death, Yakuza arrived to take over the crime network, taking hostages as they do. Now Frank has to alter exactly what he fight for…

I had never seen this film before (I’d only seen the 2004 remake) and while it has certainly aged it started out quite well! Lundgren plays the part incredibly dour and monosyllabic, but since The Punisher is shown as a man cut off from society, driven only to kill, living in the sewers… I can believe his performance. But the second act became tiresome with an overabundance of action set pieces and the action in the third act felt ridiculous and unreal. For such a realistic vigilante story, suddenly no one could shoot Frank to save themselves!
The plot follows Castle’s old Police partner trying to track him down and the newly appointed mob boss (Jeroen Krabbe, playing almost every character he’s ever played, aka The Fugitive and 007: The Living Daylights) becoming entangled with the Yakuza kidnapping his son and his colleagues’ children. The film is only ninety minutes, and most of it is packed with action sequences, and these two very distinct plot threads struggle to mesh harmoniously.
Frank’s partner Jake has perhaps the most moving scene when finally confronting Frank, an hour into the film. It is a great scene, but even then the character of Frank Castle doesn’t get any development… he more or less remains as dour and grim at the end as he did at the start.
There’s also a weird comic relief character… I’ve no idea, it started out with a remote control truck with a bottle of whiskey in it…

But, for weird comic relief characters, dated appearance, shambling story and overlong chains of action sequences… it wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. It borrows a lot from the films of the time, especially The Terminator (director Mark Goldblatt was indeed the editor for that film, and Terminator 2, and even 2015’s Chappie.)

Overall, it is pretty irrelevant and not smart. But stuff sure gets blown up, there’s blood and executions and death everywhere; old school comic book movie film mixed with 80s action movie sensibilities. I liked it for its grim visuals; heck, it was almost (not really) reminiscent of Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil!

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The Punisher (2004) Extended Cut

This 2004 remake of the Marvel property from LionsGate proves to be a mixed bag.

Frank Castle is one of the best in the force, and when he makes a drug bust one of a crime lord’s sons is killed in the crossfire. Frank’s partner betrays his identity which leads to Frank’s entire family being brutally killed and Frank himself presumed dead. But he returns, vengeful and intent on exacting vigilante justice on those responsible; Howard Saint and his own family.

Also, meet Dave, Joan and Bumpo! Bumpo just loves food, miming to opera and is thankful for Diet Coke.

This film has some weird tone issues.

2004 was perhaps the beginning of the comic book movie avalanche we know today, following 2002’s Spider-Man, preceeding 2005’s Batman Begins and including Spider-Man 2, The Punisher was relatively unknown but deserving of a remake. Thomas Jane (The Mist, Dreamcatcher) plays Frank Castle here and the film’s antagonist, much like the 1989 version is an original character, a crime lord banker named Howard Saint played by John Travolta.
At first the film has a lot of promise. Unlike Lundgren’s Punisher we get backstory here; Marvel is keen to give us full origin stories nowadays and 2004’s film is no exception. We see a happy and content Frank Castle drop off the deep end as his family (and even extended family) is wiped out before his eyes. They even kill his dad, Rob Scheider, the fiends! Thomas Jane actually gives a great transformation, you can tell the character is “dead”.

That is… until his first victim is tortured with a lollipop.
The Punisher doesn’t so much punish half the time as he does passively undermine his enemies, like giving them parking tickets, or hit enemies with frying pans, or even have a comedic fight with a massive white haired “Russian” dressed like Pop-Eye.

Now don’t get me wrong, he does shoot a lot of people, and there’s a lot of blood and carnage. But there seems to be a upsetting juxtaposition of The Punisher’s grim-dark material and what the studio saw Spider-Man achieve two years earlier. I know little about the comics, and Frank’s neighbours the aforementioned Joan, Dave and Bumpo, are actual Marvel characters. But the major villain is not. While I can appreciate this trio being genuine characters, they felt like they stalled the movie.
(Unless you pretend that Joan is Marvel’s Mystique in disguise, given both were played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos!)
John Travolta seems like a bad fit here. While what the film does with the character is unique, I never felt like he was particularly menacing, especially towards the end when he feels the pressure building; he starts doing that Travolta nervous laugh/grimace thing. Why didn’t they use a Marvel villain?

It still feels like a struggle to give this character the emotional weight it deserves, and the darkness that comes with such a bleak origin story. While it benefits comparably better side characters than the 1989 version, it tone is less consistent.

Why was there a hitman playing a guitar solo for Frank in a diner?

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Punisher: Warzone (2008)

As if reacting to some negative feedback from the Thomas Jane Punisher film’s tone, 2008’s Punisher: War Zone is a fast paced, ultra violent action flick. Not a bad entry to the comic book action pantheon, but really lacks intelligence.

Frank Castle has become well established as The Punisher, a vigilante set to wipe out all organised crime after his family is killed, over five years police investigators are no closer to catching him. But when an undercover FBI agent is killed in the crossfire, the investigation intensified. Meanwhile Castle’s vendetta against criminal Billy “The Beaut” Russo causes Billy to be horribly disfigured and transformed into the villain known as Jigsaw.

First of all, at last a larger than life Marvel villain in a Punisher movie!

This film makes no bones about it; this is a testosterone fueled gun battle filled with carnage and war, the subtitle “war zone” should give that away. Frank Castle receives much the same treatment as in the Lundgren movie, if not less! Played here by Ray Stevenson (who would go on to play the Asgardian Volstagg in the first two Marvel Thor movies!) as a sewer dwelling army-hardened man who is armed to the teeth. If the audience doesn’t know who the Punisher is already, War Zone isn’t going to help you understand his motivations… at all.
There’s less supporting character work, and a lot less comic relief (gratefully) although what comic relief exists feels quite shoehorned in and very glib, but at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Director Lexi Alexander (who is a former World Karate and Kickboxing Champion…) has clearly taken the film franchise down a more comic book style; New York is seen here laced with neon lights and extremely vibrant gel lighting. It reminded me of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever at times.

One scene sticks in my mind. Castle, in his shadowy sewer lair, opens a dusty old chest and the items inside are bathed with light! Multi-coloured light. Its just… glowing impossibly.

Our villain this time is Billy Russo (Dominic West) or Jigsaw as he is later known after Castle throws him into a glass bottle recycler and his face is shredded into a mess. Creative, I’ll grant it that much, but also reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman, all the way until he is unmasked from rolls of bandages in a dank surgery and using a hand mirror, to later prancing around in suits. But I give him the benefit of the doubt; it is great to see another Marvel villain, a more street-level villain at that.

Overall War Zone is perhaps honoring its comic book roots better than the other two, despite being the weakest in terms of film-making. The editing isn’t great, the script is forgettable and there’s little to no development of character.

It is a carnage filled action film, gory and ultra-violent. Better than the original 1989 film, simply by looks and the villains.

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Additional Marshmallows: Can somebody please explain to me why Frank Castle breaks a pencil in his nostril? He also sniffs and snorts a lot. I would like this clarified.

So, the jury is out on this one.

Honestly, I think I prefer Punisher: War Zone simply because it was more memorable and felt like a comic book movie. Thomas Jane’s 2004 Punisher had a lot going for it; he was the best Frank Castle and the origin story was well done. But the film itself was just messy and didn’t feel fully committed. At least Lundgren’s film had plenty of carnage (matching War Zone) despite lacking almost everything else.

It has been a fun ride. I can’t say I was bored at any point with these movies!

I guess we just have to wait and see what Marvel does with the Punisher in the second season of the awesome Daredevil show! I can’t wait!

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