Comic Book Movies 101: The Punisher

After the long slog that was retrospectively reviewing the entire Disney 50, we decided that perhaps we set our standards too low. So as well as covering all of the Pixar releases in February for the foreseeable future (right up into the summer), we will be covering 101 Comic Book adaptations! Yes, there have been that many and many more! We will cheat from time to time by lumping some franchises together in single posts. Even our writers have lives to contend with outside of this work. So let us begin!

Movies based on comics were coming into vogue again at the close of the 80’s. Superman had dominated the market since the end of the 70’s with barely any other films coming close to getting the attention or profits that franchise enjoyed for a while. Then Batman came and made it fun to do darker films. Within a couple of years we had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Darkman (Sam Raimi’s very own version of The Shadow). Hell, there was even Fantastic Four and Captain America films that barely made a ripple. Here though we are going to look at one of the most over-looked of the bunch: The Punisher.


The Punisher (1990)

The Punisher films started way back when, with Dolph Lundgren (at the height of his popularity) playing the role of Frank Castle without The Punisher’s signature skull-print T-shirt.

Lundgren was backed up by a colourful array of characters – both cops and gangsters.  In fact, not only is there the Mafia, but there is also the Yakuza to take on. While we are given a brief set up that introduces Castle’s killer, the plot moves on to focus on the Mafia who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a Yakuza takeover led by Lady Tanaka. With only Jeroen Krabbe’s Mafioso Gianni Franco putting up much of a fight, the Asian gangsters find it all too easy to invade the turf.

Frank Castle returns from the dead, proving quite the thorn in both gangs’ sides. All the while he has his former partner (Louis Gosset, Jr) trying to take him down and bring him back to reality.

For a film that does not have a huge budget it is fairly impressive to see what was achieved. For a late 80s action flick it has all the hallmarks of the decade’s best and worst action tropes. But it also has a script that is far more complex than it has any right to be. To have two rival gangs at war thickens the action and the drama for the supporting players; which gives the likes of Lady Tanaka and her mute daughter, as well as the Franco family, added qualities. The plot is full of holes of course, but it ranks highly on the Lundgren meter and zips along at a fine pace.

The third act becomes all the more interesting when Castle is forced to work with his enemy in order to take down their mutual enemy. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But of course at the denouement this alliance flips back again – and unapologetically so. And it is this attitude that is important with The Punisher. Even the audience, who can see a working compromise, is not allowed to wallow in its merits as Castle is forced to take out Franco as well. The only upset to this is that it is Franco who points the gun first (even if Castle did threaten to kill him once it was all over). It would have been nice just to see Castle do it without being threatened so as to push the taste boundaries for the audience, as in the comics.

It is odd that the film didn’t do so well because, some dated editing styles aside, it stands up pretty well and is worth revisiting.


The Punisher (2004)

15 years after the original Punisher hit theatres, and Jonathan Hensleigh rebooted the character with Thomas Jane in the lead role.  Smaller, but beefed up for sure, his Frank Castle looked far too much the ordinary man to be mistaken for the hulk-sized avenger.

If anything, though, this film tries to be both the most dramatic and the most over the top. But while we are used to The Punisher leaping from the shadows and quite brutally killing his foes (as he does not believe in the justice system), instead we get Castle’s revenge being one of misdirection at first. He doesn’t go the full Mad Max until the end of the film (save for the odd action beat when he is attacked by hired henchmen). The Punisher does not go on the attack often enough – instead he tools around in his flat while coming close to having his humanity saved by three very displaced residents in his building.

Quite what all the home drama is about I’m not quite sure – but its cheesy message about friendship and family is an unwelcome presence in what is meant to be a Punisher movie.

John Travolta is on main villain duties, and he performs well. But considering the bulk of the body of the film involves the Punisher turning him against his own nearest and dearest he is therefore required to be a rather touchy empire ruler. To be fair it is done well – and he is given great company in the faces of his venomous wife and gay right-hand-man (Will Patton). But watching him take out his own people is almost a missed opportunity for the Punisher, who as we know deals in only violence (again which is what you expect from this character).

The sporadic action is also a missed opportunity as the henchmen sent to take out Castle are quickly disposed of. Harry Heck, in particular, makes an impressive entrance, taunting Castle in song (he plays an acoustic guitar and sings to him in a diner) only to be dispatched in the next scene. The end of the film then leaves you resigned to the fact that the film hasn’t delivered what you wanted it to – but then for a five to ten minute spree, finally sees Castle leaping into a full assault that delivers some worthy kills, but ultimately is too little too late.


The Punisher: War Zone (2008)

A few years on and another attempt was made in the wildly comic and ultraviolent Punisher: War Zone. The trailer looked like a direct-to-video mess – but what we get is a highly over stylized, yet effortless violent romp.

Stevenson looks much more like Frank Castle. He bears the emblem. He goes out and kills in the unstoppable way that the Punisher would – therefore marrying the best aspects of the Lundgren and Jane attempts together in what is one wonderful guilty pleasure. This time we have the introduction of a well-known Punisher villain; Jigsaw (played OTT by the wonderful Dominic West). If you thought Jack Nicholson was hamming it up in Batman, wait until you get a load of this guy – not to mention his doolally brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson).

The style, colourisation and energy reach heights beyond stupendous. If you wanted inventive and bloody kills, then War Zone delivers it with pride and joy.

There is some drama stamped on the envelope as well for those that care about The Punisher wrestling with the idea that he has become that which he despises the most. But it isn’t dealt with in too much depth – only enough to give the man something to ponder in his free time. The rest of the time he is looking for the next kill. And the body count is high!

The problem with this “non-trilogy” is that each one is like a fresh take or reboot of the character.  The only saving grace here is that only the second film tries to be an origin story. Although we are treated to flashbacks in others, they don’t just retell it from the beginning. So technically you could order them about if you so wished and pretend it was an ongoing story. Why not? There are different villains in each one!  I hope therefore that no actor returns to the role for a second occasion, as this could be a novel way of exploring Punisher stories without having to be restrained by the works of others.

The only other acceptable way is to wait, then reboot for real in a proper franchise that is much more of a solid piece of work with depth to it. As they are told at the moment they are just excuses for heavy violence. But that alone can’t hold together a franchise.

And we could get either/or at this point, as there is indeed another reboot in the works as the rights have reverted back to Marvel. They are taking their stab at the franchise, and if it works we could get a string of films. If it doesn’t it’s just another one added to the pile. A fourth failed attempt could mean the grave for Frank Castle if they don’t deliver something that makes money.  What they need to keep in mind is that if they make it for teens and not adults it may gain viewers, but it will lose a core audience and piss off the fans. If they make it for adults, it may not be a big hitter. With the right cast, director – and let’s not forget a writer – this could be something special. But then, couldn’t they all!

Steven Hurst

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