Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Brutal Violence, Language and brief Nudity
Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh & Michael France
(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)
Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn & John Pinette
Marvel failed to birth a PUNISHER film franchise during the late 80’s, so they gave it a second try in 2004. Though this early 2000’s incarnation is a more “realistic” take on the Punisher’s origin, it failed to spawn the potential franchise that the studio and viewers were hoping for. Despite that disappointing turn of events, the film still stands head and shoulders over the 1989 Dolph Lundgren version. Instead of feeling like a straight-up comic book movie, THE PUNISHER has the tone of a gritty revenge-thriller…despite its main character’s claims that his motives are not fueled by vengeance.
Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent whose latest sting has resulted in the death of Bobby Saint, the son of powerful mafia lord Howard Saint. In order to avenge his scumbag son’s death, Saint orders the execution of Frank Castle’s entire family. This results in every single one of Frank’s relatives being wiped off the face of the earth in a bloody ambush, least of all his wife and son. Little does Saint know that Frank barely survived the vicious attack and is now fueled by an overwhelming desire to punish the Saint crime family for all of their wrongdoings. Frank sets up a carefully calculated plan of revenge, all while trying to dodge colorful assassins at every turn.
To state the obvious, Thomas Jane is a far better Punisher than Dolph Lundgren could ever hope to be. Jane manages to maintain the character’s tragic brooding nature along with his bad-ass action hero persona. It’s a hard combination to balance, but he pulls it off damn near perfectly. When I think of The Punisher, Thomas Jane is always the first incarnation that pops into my head. Facing off against him is John Travolta as the evil, soulless Howard Saint. Though Travolta can get a little hammy in places, he’s so good at being bad. Saint is a villain that you love to hate and you can’t help but take gratification when things are (sometimes, literally) falling apart around him.
The side characters are where this PUNISHER becomes a bit of a mixed bag. Ben Foster and John Pinette play comic relief neighbors to Jane’s sullen Punisher. Though the script eventually tries to craft something deeper out of them, their presence feels forced and unneeded. Rebecca Romijn receives slightly more to do as the potential love interest for Castle, but her eventual arc feels slightly half-assed and underwhelming. It seemed like the film was building towards something big with this character and then forgot what it was by the time the final scene arrived.
The foes that Frank faces off against are far more interesting and entertaining to watch than any of the three apartment dwellers. There’s the Russian (a huge, silent, and seemingly unkillable foe) and the short-lived, but memorable, Harry Heck (an assassin who also fancies himself a musician). The former delivers the best fight scene of the entire film, while the latter has a memorable shoot-out that ends in one crazy punch line. Will Patton also receives a significant amount of screen time as Howard Saint’s number-two man and I ultimately liked where they went with his character (even if it seems slightly silly by today’s standards).
What should be praised about 2004’s PUNISHER is that it actually takes time to develop Frank Castle as a family man before getting into fiery combat sequences and bloody revenge. It’s all the better for it because I was rooting for Frank, even as he was committing rather monstrous acts that make you question whether he’s better than the bad guys. Though the film has some significant downtime between action sequences to watch Castle slowly transform into the unforgiving Punisher, the finale is truly something to behold. Viewers who find themselves fidgeting through the movie’s slower moments will be rewarded with an explosion-filled climax that’s littered with corpses. That’s a very good thing in THE PUNISHER universe.
This reboot of THE PUNISHER can get a tad over-the-top and silly in places (John Travolta’s ultimate fate is completely ridiculous), but remains an enjoyably dark revenge-thriller. This is a film for those who want a straight-up violent action movie featuring Marvel’s equivalent of Batman (though this vigilante has no qualms about killing bad guys in particularly brutal ways). THE PUNISHER is an entertaining good time and miles better than its 1989 competition (though I have yet to see the 2008 reboot).