The Punisher (2004) Review – A Superhero Film with No Superheroes

As far as ‘Superhero’ films go, the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to be a little bit too much for kids and rabid fans. If I watch a Superhero film, I want one that isn’t complicated, only has a few instalments and above all, isn’t for kids. That’s why I like ‘Deadpool’ so much and indeed why I like Punisher. It’s got everything I want in a Superhero film; it’s gory, it’s got guns, fighting, swear words, John Travolta and above all, no self-righteous superheroes. No superheroes at all, actually.

The plot is based on the comic book series of the same name and regular readers will know that I’m not big on comic books. It’s not that I don’t like comic books, it’s just that I don’t have the time to get invested. I had much the same problem with ‘The Crow’. Loved the film, haven’t read the comic/graphic novel.

Anyone who read my ‘1922’ review will know that I love Thomas Jane and will watch anything with him in. I thought his performance in 1922 was fine except for the hilarious accent and for this venture has adopted the atypical ‘deep, gravelly’ voice that is only adopted for a character who is desperately trying to come across as dark and broody. It is a little bit funny.

Also, it should be on record that Thomas Jane turned down this role twice because he didn’t see himself as ‘superhero actor’. He presumably changed his mind when he was told that he wouldn’t be playing a superhero but rather be playing the role of every vigilante protagonist from any given 90’s film starring either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone.

This was not the first outing for ‘The Punisher’ as there was a film from 1989 of the same name and concept starring Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle but as we know, Marvel properties can be remade an infinite amount of times.

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is a former Delta Force Operative and current undercover FBI agent whose final mission before retirement is to foil a smuggling operation which results in the death of John Saint (James Carpinello), the son of notorious crime boss, Howard Saint (John Travolta). As a retaliation, Howard Saint orders Castle’s entire family to be killed, including his wife and young son, along with Castle himself. However, Castle survives being shot in the leg, arm and chest and vows to bring down the Saints in the most elaborate way possible.

In action films, I love it when the bad guys actively go out of their way to not kill the protagonist just because the plot demands that they sustain a non-fatal injury. If Bobby Saint had shot Castle in the head rather than the chest, the film would have been about 20 minutes long. Just in case I haven’t mentioned, Frank Castle has no superpowers. He’s a normal human being with just as much of a weakness against bullets as I do. The only advantage he has over the bad guys is that he’s the protagonist. In these films, nothing short of decapitation will guarantee the death of the protagonist.

For the time being, the Saints believe that Castle is dead and so to stay under the radar and to plot his revenge, Castle hides in a small apartment building that’s seen better days and the three other tenants on his floor, Waitress, Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Video game enthusiast, Dave (Ben Foster) and Chef, Bumpo who was played by John Pinette who sadly passed away in 2014. These three are good friends and take an instant fascination in Castle.

Before the final act, a lot of the film is Howard Saint sending various assassins to kill Castle after he very publicly attacks Saint’s money laundering business and steals some of his money.

The first is a guy who sings at him in the diner where Joan works but is killed by Castle with a Ballistic Knife and the second is ‘The Russian’, a massive individual who can chuck Castle around like a ragdoll.

I have to say that Joan, Dave and Bumpo are very accepting and trusting off the bat. Again, this has to be a case of ‘they like him because the plot demands that they like him’. It’s obvious that Joan likes Castle because he’s a good-looking man which is fine and totally understandable. That combined with the fact that he got rid an ex of hers only seals her approval of him whilst Dave and Bumpo still think that he’s quite scary and they have every right to think that.

Picture this. You live in a rundown apartment building in a rough area of the city. One day, an attractive stranger moves into your building and he spends a lot of time ‘everything-proofing’ his car and hoards a weapons arsenal in his apartment that would put the National Guard to shame. He’s proficient with weapons and good at violence and occasionally, screams are heard coming from his apartment at night. That would be enough for me to consider moving.

However, when Castle has the shit kicked out of him by the Russian, the trio patch him up and even hide him when Howard Saint’s right hand, Quentin Glass (Will Patton) comes looking him which leads to Dave having his many piercings pulled out with pliers. Even Castle shows surprise that these people who have only known him for a short amount of time and don’t know him at all except for what they’ve read online are willing to lay down their lives for him.

With the help of Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison) who is an underling of Howard Saint and despises the organisation, Castle orchestrates a plan to make it look like Glass is having an affair with Howard’s wife, Livia (Laura Harring) which leads to Howard stabbing Glass to death and then throwing Livia off a bridge and leaving her to be run over by a train. He then offers a suitcase full of cash to anyone who can kill Castle.

What they don’t know is that Castle is outside and ready to enact his plan which is basically going in and shooting up the room full of assassins before fatally wounding Howard himself. As a final ‘fuck you’, Castle ties Howard to a car which drags him into a carpark where Castle sets off a load of explosives which form the shape of the now iconic ‘Punisher Skull Face’. It was a nice visual representation but would only have been meaningful to anyone watching from the sky and of course Castle himself. It was a lot of extra effort when he really didn’t need to.

Speaking of, the whole plan of making Howard think his wife was messing around with his best friend was very elaborate and well executed but Castle only revealed that it was all his doing in the moments before he killed Howard. There was no time for Howard to dwell on what he done, that he’d been tricked into doing these terrible things. That was a lot of extra work for not a lot of pay off.

The film ends with Castle about to kill himself but he sees a vision of his wife and decides to carry on his activities as a vigilante under the title ‘The Punisher’.

‘The Punisher’ had a budget of $33 Million and made $54.7 Million at the box office, a disappointing return. The reviews weren’t too favourable either with the film holding a 29% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Frankly, I’m surprised Castle got away with it. There’s a moment where Frank shows up outside a police station therefore revealing that he’s alive and queries the detectives about the case against Saint’s for the murder of his family. The police know Castle’s alive, the know what he’s capable of and they know that he has a grudge against the Saint’s and so when the Saint’s all end up dead, could they not put two and two together? I think this may be another case of ‘the plot demands that Castle get away with it because we need to set up the sequel’.

Alas, a sequel was planned after the successful DVD sales of ‘The Punisher’ but when both Jane and director, Jonathan Hensleigh left the project due to ‘creative differences’, the film was rewritten into a reboot starring Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle and Dominic West as Billy Russoti/Jigsaw.

Thomas Jane did reprise the role of Frank Castle in 2012 for a short film, ‘Dirty Laundry’ which showed the perils that Frank faces as he tries to do his washing. It’s only 10 minutes and it was a little slice of was accomplished in 2004.
Personally, I enjoyed this depiction of ‘The Punisher’. Some of the plot points are a bit flawed as I have pointed out but taken as a whole, it’s a really good action film. If the ‘Marvel’ ident wasn’t played at the start, I wouldn’t have guessed that this was a Marvel property. It seems largely unconnected from the other franchises and frankly, that’s how I like it.

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