The Punisher made his first Marvel Comics appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974, striking quite a chord with comic book fans who couldn’t get enough of his no-nonsense style of revenge-driven justice. This guy was Batman with bullets, a one-man judge/jury/executioner who sent society’s worst to Hell the hard way.
The first appearance of the Punisher on film came in 1989. Dolph Lundgren starred as Frank Castle, a war veteran whose life is destroyed when a mob crossfire rips away his wife and daughter. Berserk with grief, Castle finds enough focus to become the Punisher. But his war against the mob takes an unexpected twist when the Yakuza steps in and kidnaps the children of the very mobsters Castle has sworn to destroy. And so the Punisher must rescue the children of the men who stole his own life, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because the memory of his own beloved daughter is still behind every bullet he fires. The low-budget, quickly made cheapie was written by Boaz Yakin (who would later direct Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans) and directed by Marc Goldblatt, who edited the first two Terminator films, True Lies and several Bruckheimer blockbusters. Hell, it even had Louis Gossett, Jr. in it.
This first Punisher came out the same year as the first Keaton/Burton Batman, years before the Batman franchise would fall apart and even more years before Marvel would rise to the forefront of comic book film-making with X-Men and Spider-Man. There is no offense meant to Dolph Lundgren in this comment, but let’s be fair — if 1989 could bring us a decent Punisher movie with Lundgren, the current Marvel empire could surely create something that would define the character in the same way that Spider-Man made us all feel along with Peter Parker. Right?
Um, no. The Punisher, directed by Jonathan Hensleigh and co-written by Hensleigh and Michael France, is a sloppy, heavy-handed pile of cinematic garbage. It’s been compared to ’80s action films. But I know Commando. And you, Punisher, are no Commando.
If there is one thing The Punisher does accomplish, it’s to cram as many terrible coincidences and clichés as possible into every single moment. We first meet Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) as an undercover agent trying to bring down an illegal arms operation funded by drug-dealing bad guy Howard Saint (John Travolta). It’s Castle’s last job before taking an early retirement with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son, and we all know what that means in an action movie. One of Saint’s sons ends up getting killed in the bust, and we all know what that means, too.
Saint and his wife (Laura Harring) are devastated. Saint wants Castle dead. His wife wants Castle’s entire family to die. In a perfect stroke of luck, it just so happens that Frank is attending a family reunion. His wife and son are there, along with his mother, his father and every single brother and sister and cousin and niece and nephew. And of course his son gives him a black T-shirt with a big white skull on it as a retirement gift, and of course his dad (Roy Scheider) has just specially modified Frank’s old guns for him, and of course Frank’s wife wants to have another baby. It’s one sappy thing after another. And then Saint’s men show up and murder everyone. Women. Children. Old people. It’s the most ridiculous, over-the-top display of unnecessary savagery you’ll ever see. (At least it’s filmed so poorly that it’s not as disturbing as it could have been.)
So after the bad guys run over Castle’s wife and kid with a truck, they shoot Castle on the right side of the chest where there are no vital organs. Then they cover the area with gasoline, but they don’t get any within several feet of Frank and they certainly don’t get any on him. The explosion blows Frank clear. He’s picked up by a philosophical fisherman and recuperates just long enough to grow a short beard before relocating to the city, where he hides guns in his new apartment and adds retractable armor to an old muscle car. “Vaya con Dios, Castle,” the fisherman says before they part ways. “Go with God.”
“God’s going to sit this one out,” Castle replies. God will be in good company; common sense and good film-making will also being joining The Most High in the waiting room.
Castle shoots some guys, and stabs some guys. You almost think the film is going to get better when he devises a plan to pit Saint against his right-hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton), but the pay-off is just as silly as everything else here. The climax is impossibly awful, and the film also features the single most terrible use of a superhero’s symbol ever.
Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, Ben Foster and John Pinette star as Frank’s misfit neighbors. Romjin-Stamos is criminally underused, playing a waitress who always falls for the wrong guy in every city she’s ever lived in. Foster and Pinette are around for something that’s supposed to be comic relief, though Foster does have a good moment that constitutes the movie’s one true display of honest-to-goodness bravery. The Punisher is weakly directed, poorly written, badly edited and acted only to the limits of its pathetic screenplay.
Regardless of the final product, Thomas Jane buffed up above and beyond the call of duty, and he definitely looks the part. He deserves a good pat on the back for doing the best he can with what he’s given. Will Patton is an excellent supporting actor and also comes out of this mess with a good performance. Travolta is reduced to a caricature of the villains he’s played before, though Harring’s curves make for good eye candy. Everyone here deserved much better.
Director Jonathan Hensleigh, an executive producer on Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds with a writing credit on Armageddon, lacks vision and focus. His co-writer here, Michael France, is the same scribe who sucked all of the fun out of last year’s equally heavy-handed Hulk. Comic book movies can (and should) be serious, but they should also be fun. This thing is barely even fun to laugh at. It feels cheap. It looks cheap. With this cast and a decent writer and director, The Punisher could have been amazing proof that good comic books films can be made with less-than-blockbuster budgets. As it stands, The Punisher isn’t just the worst Marvel movie made so far. It’s not even the best Punisher movie made so far. And that, True Believers, is some punishment.