The Punisher is kinda of a weird comic book character for filmmakers to choose to adapt. In the Marvel comic books that he stars in he's a very unique character. He's got no superpowers, he doesn't wear a cape and he doesn't have any code of conduct. When he catches criminals he doesn't tie them up for the police like Spider-man would, he shoots them in the face and dumps their bodies in the river. Transplanting the Punisher to film he loses all his unique aspects and becomes just another vigilante in the mold of Charles Bronson or Robert McGinty. Anyway, that hasn't stopped three attempts to bring the character to the big screen. Let's look at the first.
The Punisher was made in 1989 and released in the wake of Tim Burton's astromonically successful Batman. Dolph Lundgren stars as Frank Castle, a former cop whose wife and kids were blown up in by a car bomb meant for him. With everyone thinking that he's dead Castle has re-invented himself as an almost mythic vigilante who executes any criminals who escape the traditional justice system. His main target is Mafia boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) but when the Yakuza, led by the vicious Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), roll into town and kidnap all the mob's children Frank is forced to team up with Franco to rescue them.
The film was directed by Mark Goldblatt, the Oscar winning editor of such films as The Terminator and Commando, who also had just finished directing Dead Heat the previous year (see review). Like Dead Heat the film is quite low budget and cheap looking which might put off some viewers. Most scenes are very murkily lit and Goldblatt does little to hide the fact that he's shooting in Sydney, Australia, rather that New York City. However the lack of polish is deceptive because underneath it all there's some damn fine action sequences and a spectacular body count. I thought the ending was particularly well done with Castle and Franco slaughtering their way through dozens of goons at the Yakuza headquarters. There's a great bit where the lights go out and the whole set is bathed in a stark red light for several minutes as Castle continues fighting which was a nice flash of style in an otherwise ugly looking film.
The lead character is played by Dolph Lundgren. He does an over-the-top but enjoyable portrayal of man with nothing left to lose. There were some very strange shots of him sitting in his underground lair doing mediation in the nude. As far as I know that's never happened in the comic book so I've got to guess that the writer added that as "something for the ladies". One thing every comic book fan gets livid about is that Dolph doesn't rock the trademark skull T-shirt that the Punisher is noted for. It is an odd omission considering they went to the length of dyed Dolph's blonde hair black to match the look of the comic book character. Personally I'm not too bothered by absence but I think the filmmakers probably thought it was too goofy. Instead, as a kind of compromise, they gave Lundgren really dark bags under his eyes and a five o'clock shadow which made his face look a bit like a skull.
Louis Gossett jr does an great job as Castle's former cop partner, Jake. He mostly just shouts at Castle but their exchanges add to nice dark humour to the film. The funniest exchange has to be this one:-
Jake: You're sick. You know that, don't you?The filmmakers actually cut out a lot of Gossett's part. There was a whole 20 minute chunk that was meant to go at the start of the film that showed Castle when he was still a cop. It's easy to find on youtube if you want to check it out. Personally I'm really glad they cut it out because it was a tedious prologue and the film has a much better pace starting with Castle already being the Punisher. Origin stories are way overrated.
Castle: I'm not sick!
Jake: Then what the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?
Castle: Work in progress.
Castle: I'm not sick!
Jake: Then what the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?
Castle: Work in progress.
All in all, The Punisher is an okay film. It understands the bare bones of the character and towards the end has some interesting (if ham-fisted) commentary about the cycle of violence. It could have done with a bit of bigger budget to give its action sequences some truly stand out moments and maybe cast a few better actors to surround Dolph. Sadly, The Punisher didn't get a theatrical release in the US, due to the collapse of the film's producing studio New World Pictures, and sat on the shelf until 1991 when it was sent direct to video. The reception it got on release was very poor and it's sort of been forgotten now.
The Punisher (2004)
The next Punisher movie was produced following the success of other Marvel movies such as Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-man. Studios all over Hollywood were scrabbling to buy up comic book properties and the minor league Artisan bought up the rights to the Punisher hoping to get some of that comic book movie "mo-nay". The film was the directorial debut of Jonathan Hensleigh, the screenwriter behind such hit movies as Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon, and the producer was his wife Gale Ann Hurd, who had also produced The Terminator and Aliens. With those credentials the project seemed like it couldn't possibly be anything less than an action classic.
The 2004 film reboots the Punisher story with Thomas Jane playing Frank Castle, an undercover FBI Agent who, in the course of doing his job, kills the son of Florida crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). In retaliation Saint finds out his true identity and sends his men to kill Castle and his entire extended family while they are on holiday. Castle manages, just barely, to survive the attack and sets out to "punish" Saint and his men. However rather than go for the direct approach that the Dolph Lundgren version favoured, Jane's Castle discreetly turns Saint and his men against each other 'Yojimbo'-style until only Howard Saint is left.
Once again the film was given a (comparatively) low budget which forced Hensleigh to cut out and rewrite a lot of sequences, the most significant of which was a 15 minute prologue scene with Castle as a soldier in Kuwait (you can see an animated version of it on the Special Edition DVD). Thomas Jane was an odd choice to play Frank Castle. He's not muscle bound or imposing really and I think that was intentional. I think Hensleigh had higher aspirations for the film than being just another dumb action movie. He wanted to take the comic characters and present them more as human beings than caricatures. At the time he cited his inspiration as a being 70s flicks like Dirty Harry and The Getaway. I can't say I really felt those influences in the film but it did have a more realistic tone than the Lundgren version. Of course realism doesn't necessarily make a film better.
The problem with this film is that it felt like it kept jumping back and forth between being gritty and small scale and over the top and epic. For instance, the film ends (spoiler) with Howard Saint being dragged by a slow-moving car as bombs go off around him. Then the camera zooms up and looks down on the action and we see that Castle has rigged a whole car park full of car bombs which, when they explode, make a skull symbol. It was an unbelievably goofy moment in an otherwise sombre finale. I can also see why the filmmakers wanted to film in Tampa. Its sunny atmosphere made an interesting counterpoint to the dark nature of the story but I think ultimately the brightness of the film killed too much of the atmosphere to make the film feel brooding and serious.
Travolta was very disappointing as Howard Saint. He didn't have a lot to do and looked bored most of time. I know from watching Face/Off and, to a lesser extent, Broken Arrow that he can do highly memorable villains when he wants to so I don't know what happened here. I think part of the problem was that there were too many other characters eating up his screentime. There was his wife (who was the one who specified that Castle's entire family had to die), a right hand man called Glass, two twin sons. Howard Saint was too hands-off to feel like an active threat to Castle. The two of them really needed more scenes to face off against one another.
Most of the script drew quite heavily from a comic book mini-series popular called 'Welcome Back Frank'. I like the fact that they included the Russian, a ridiculously beefed up assassin who wears a silly red and white striped jumped, and thought his lengthy fight with Castle was one of the highlights of the film. I was less thrilled that they also included Spacker Dave, Mr Bumpo and Joan from that series. Their semi-comedic interactions with Castle felt really forced and unnecessary. I also don't understand why the makers felt we needed Castle to have a love interest like Joan. His wife, just died, not half an hour earlier (movie time wise). Castle doesn't need love interests. He needs guns, lot of guns.
Overall, I found The Punisher to be a little underwhelming. Sure, it was much more ambitious than the Lundgren film but I also felt it missed its target. I like that it had high aspirations for the character but I don't think it succeeded at all. The biggest turn off for me was that it was sluggishly paced. The amount of plot it had didn't justify it's two hour running time at all.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
The Thomas Jane Punisher film didn't do fantastic business. It made about £55 million at the box office on a budget of $33 million and got a mixed set of reviews from critics. I think more than anything the reason a sequel was made is that the studio wanted to make sure they had wrung all the potential money from the license before they had to give it back to Marvel. The film was directed by Lexi Alexander who had only one previous film to her credit - the cheesy but ultra violent Green Street. Prior to her hiring the producer, Gale Ann Hurd again, was trying to court John Dahl to direct but he ultimately turned her down as did the original star Thomas Jane who wasn't happy with the script.
Punisher: War Zone starred British actor Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, etc etc etc, you know the deal by now. He's five years into waging his one man war against criminals. We catch up with him one night breaking into a mob boss' mansion, slaughtering his way through the inhabitants. One of intended targets, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), manages to escape though so Castle tracks him down to a nearby glass recycling plant. A fight ensues and Castle ends up knocking Russoti into a vat of broken glass and leaves. Turns out Russoti survives and a surgeon stitches up his face the best he can. Russoti takes on the moniker 'Jigsaw' and sets out to find Punisher and kill him for good, enlisting his mentally deranged brother Loonie Bin Jim (Doug Richardson) and countless disposable henchmen.
This film is one of the most demented action films I've ever seen. It's unbelievably gory. People get their head cut off, chair legs go through people's faces, one guy gets blown up by a rocket launcher and the main villain (spoiler) gets impaled and set on fire. It's like watching one of the Saw movies (which I guess shouldn't be surprising considering Lionsgate produced that series as well as this). The filmmakers this time drew heavily on Garth Ennis ultra violent PunisherMAX comic series and I thought they did a decent job translating some of the twisted humour from the series as well as capturing the feel of Tim Bradstreet's vivid artwork. Despite it's dark subject matter the lighting is bright and very vibrant but unlike the previous film it's almost entirely set at night.
I can kind of see why Jane turned the film down. The script is really one note and very hollow. There's just no interest to hold the audience. Sure there's a little bit of a subplot about Castle accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent but it doesn't really go anywhere and is really only an excuse to bring in Julie Benz as the agent's grieving wife (who quickly becomes a hostage). Even the 1989 film had a better script than this. Ray Stevenson is great in the lead though. I love the heavy body armour costume they gave him and there's some very cool little bits like when he breaks his nose and snaps it back into place with the pen. The only problem is that he's let down by the script which gives him lines to read like "I'd like to get my hands on God sometimes." I think even Daniel Day Lewis would struggle to make that work.
The rest of the cast is mostly terrible. Dominic West, who was excellent in HBO's The Wire, does an awful job as Russoti/Jigsaw. He puts on this atrociously bad 'Nu Yoik' voice and goes to Gary Busey levels of overacting. According to Lexi Alexander, Freddie Prinze jr was really desperate for the part and gave a great audition but the studio insisted she go with West. I think this is probably the only time I've ever wished Freddie Prinze jr was in a movie. Doug Richardson does a similarly OTT performance as Loonie Bin Jim at one point singing "Yummy, yummy, yummy in my tummy, tummy, tummy" before stabbing a hospital attendant in the stomach with a blunt spoon!
The one little bright spot in the supporting cast was Dash Mihok who plays Detective Soap, a bumbling cop who is meant to stop the Punisher but frequently helps him out instead. The character is a direct translation from the comic book and I loved that they found the space to include him in the film. I just wish there could have been a little more of him. I definitely think that the Punisher, as a character, works better when you throw in a little humour otherwise it's just an unrelentingly bleak story.
Overall, I found Punisher: War Zone to be an empty spectacle. Sure, it was fun they ramped up the violence to crazy levels but the script really needed a lot more work. I can't quite believe that this was written by the same people who wrote Iron Man. While the 15 year old me thinks this is the greatest film ever, the 30 year old me thinks I should be watching something more constructive. Anyway, the film lost a fair chunk of money at the box office and Lexi Alexander hasn't directed a film since. It seemed like this was the end of the road for Punisher movies. Or was it?
Dirty Laundry (2012)
Dirty Laundry was a very interesting and surprising addition to the Punisher series. It was first shown at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con without any preceding publicity. The 10 minute short sees Thomas Jane reprise the role of Frank Castle. We see him heading into a laundrette to do his washing. As he sits waiting he sees a group of gang members trying to rape a woman on the street. He heads over to a liquor store, seemingly not bothered by the activity, and buys a bottle of whiskey. Coming out the store he heads over to the gang members and clubs them with the bottle before drenching the leader in the alcohol and tossing a lighter to the woman.
This was a neat little movie and I respect Jane for making it. He had no obligation to do it and made no money from it. Amateur filmmakers have been making fan films for years but this is one of the few that actually stars Hollywood actors (Ron Perlman has a bit part too). Jane actually seemed to fit the character of Castle a little better now that he was older. He had a fuller figure and a craggier face. I like the fact that Castle doesn't use a gun and improvises with the bottle too. That was something I don't think I've seen before in an action film. If I had any complaints, I did feel the film went on a little too long and could have been much tighter but it's only a short so I'll let it off.
I think the perfect Punisher movie is out there somewhere but it's going to take a long while before another studio takes the risk of making one again. I think all four adaptations have good elements and bad. The perfect Punisher would pull in aspects from all of them. I think the problem is that Frank Castle is a niche character and filmmakers shouldn't try and sand down his edges to make him presentable for a mainstream audience. He's not a mainstream character. The other mistake filmmakers keep repeating is that they think because the Punisher is a simple character that he can only star in simple stories. Yes, he's a simple character but that's only more reason to make sure you give him a super complicated story to star in. When filmmakers realise that, we might get a decent Punisher flick.