Okay, so I’m in the middle of watching all these goddamn comic book movies, and I’m still going to review them all, but there are just a ton of these films, and I only have so much time. So, in the interest of actually getting my opinion on these movies out before May 1, I’ve decided to review any movies from the same series in one post. Reboots will usually constitute their own entry (For example, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies will have a separate entry from the Marc Webb movies).
Is this a cop-out? Absolutely.
However, even though all the Punisher movies are technically reboots, I’m still going to do an all-in one review. If you’ve seen these movies, you would know why I would want to dedicate as little time to these movies as possible.
That may actually be a little bit harsh. While these films aren’t exactly high art, they’re not as awful as some people say they are. None of them are good, don’t get me wrong, but none of them are atrocious, either. It’s just that I don’t think that the character of the Punisher lends himself particularly well to movies.
But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Who is this “Punisher” schmuck, anyways? Well, in the early 70’s, the famously campy, albeit influential Silver Age of Comics was coming to an abrupt end, with Gwen Stacy’s death in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (31-year old Spoiler alert.). Marvel Comics was starting to veer towards darker, more adult storylines and one of the results of this slight change in direction was a character named the Punisher making his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974).
The Punisher’s real name is Frank Castle (Born Castiglione, but changed, because god forbid a superhero be Italian, or anything). Comic backstories are prone to frequent alterations, but Castle has more or less remained constant throughout the lore. Long story short, he was a war veteran who was in Central Park, enjoying a beautiful summer day with his wife and children when a turf war between two crime syndicates broke out and, in the crossfire, his family is gunned down.
Frank finds that hobbies are a good way to keep his mind preoccupied. However, instead of, say, stamp collecting, he decides to engage in the slightly less popular hobby of engaging in a one-man war against crime. Unafraid to torture, maim and frequently kill his victims without hesitation, his uncompromisingly black and white worldview was somewhat unusual for his time, and the character grew in popularity, appearing alongside, and frequently in conflict with, Spider-Man, Daredevil and Captain America. Eventually, he got his own ongoing solo comic, and he’s considered a mainstay of the Marvel Universe.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Punisher, per se, but he’s a pretty cool character, if not a particularly interesting one. Why this guy warranted three movies (Two of them reboots) is beyond me, but I’m not here to speculate, I’m here to annihilate (I’m both disgusted and feeling extremely self-congratulatory about that rhyme). So, what are the movies like?
Well, they’re all very much products of their respective times. For example, the first Punisher movie (The second film based on a Marvel comic) was released in 1989 and starred Dolph Lundgren, and it was very much like any other 80’s action movie starring Dolph Lundgren. It’s cheesy, it’s over the top (Albeit in a very gritty, brooding way) and the story takes a backseat to the action, and to Dolph Lundgren looking cool riding a motorcycle whilst dressed all in black.
This isn’t a bad thing at all, if you’re into that sort of deal. I was born in ’96 so, uh, I’m not so much. That doesn’t mean I hate this movie, though, I just don’t see a lot of value to it.
Dolph Lundgren doesn’t contribute anything to the character aside from, again, looking cool dressed in black and shooting mobsters. As an action star, sure, he’s fine, but other than that, he’s pretty nondescript.
In fact, this whole movie is pretty nondescript, aside from a couple things. Specifically, Louis Gossett Jr’s solid performance as Punisher’s ex-partner, and Barry Otto as Punisher’s homeless sidekick, which is the most annoying thing I’ve seen since Tim Robbins in Howard the Duck.
Also, the main villain in this movie is a Yakuza boss played by Kim Miyori and she’s alright in the role, I guess, but the movie really leans on the whole “Japanese” aspect of her character. Seriously, during the climax of the movie, there’s an entire scene where she dresses up like a geisha and does a dance. Uh…Okay… What was the point of that?
Dolph Lundgren also has a couple of almost-nude scenes, so, uh, take that how you will.
Also, no skull logo? Fucking bullshit.
Punisher’s second attempt at movie fame and fortune had to wait for fifteen years, when The Punisher was released in 2004, was directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, starred Thomas Jane as the titular character, and John Travolta as the main villain. It’s the only origin story of the three movies, and is also the least violent.
It’s also, weirdly enough, my favourite of the three movies, but. again, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. As adverse as I am to the term “guilty pleasure”, this movie is pretty much the exact definition of that.
To this movie’s credit, the portrayal of the Punisher is much improved over Lundgren’s. Tom Jane may not be as well known, but he’s generally seen as one of the few positives of this movie. He was even well received by the fanboys, reprising the role in the great 2012 Adi Shankar-produced fan film known as The Punisher: Dirty Laundry. Out of all the Punishers, he’s probably the best, and is the most interesting part of this movie. But, therein lies the main problem of The Punisher. Too much of the film is focused on boring, unfocused characters like John Travolta and his family.
My god, are these villains fucking boring. If Travolta had gone super over-the-top, it might have salvaged the mob-centric moments, but no, he phones it in, and the rest of his underlings are bland, generic mob villains.
While that does take away from the movie to an unacceptable extent, it can only do so much to diminish the awesomeness of lines like these:
Candelaria: Vaya con Dios, Castle. Go with God.
Punisher: God’s going to sit this one out.
Punisher: Those who do evil o others- the killers, therapists, psychos, sadists- you will come to know me well.
Punisher: I have work to do. Read your newspaper every day and you’ll understand.
Rebeccar Romijn: Which section?
Punisher: The obituaries.
Goddammit, I could predict all of these lines halfway through, and they’re still fucking awesome!!!
Going back to my point of these movies being products of their times, if you’ve ever seen early 2000’s superhero movies, there was a trend to make them more serious, in order to show that comic book movies could be taken seriously. Sometimes it worked (X-Men, Blade) and sometimes, it was pretty fucking bad (Daredevil, Hulk). Punisher definitely leans towards the latter, but it’s not leaning that way horribly enough to ruin the movie.
Punisher: War Zone, on the other hand.
If the brutal violence of Sin City had a drunken hookup with the colour palette from The Matrix, their love child would still be about ten times more pleasant to watch than this movie. I mean, obviously, I don’t give a shit about brutal violence (A picture from Kill Bill is my Twitter profile, fer chrissakes) and dark, dreary environments can add a lot to a movie (See: Every non-Schumacher Batman movie). War Zone takes it waaaaayyyy past the point of enjoyment. People get bumped off left and right, not a smile is cracked throughout the whole movie, and the villains aren’t just violently over the top or appealingly psychotic- they’re fucking unpleasant and depressing.
And yeah, I get it, a Punisher movie isn’t going to be all sunshine and blowjobs, but this definitely wasn’t the way to go. I’m sorry to say so, but if, in order to make a movie faithful to the source material, you have to make the movie a fucking drag of an experience, then guess what? You don’t make the fucking movie!!!! I really shouldn’t have to say this, but just because a movie is dark, does not make the movie any better.
War Zone isn’t all bad, though. I really like Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, and the action scenes are very, very well done. Other than that… Shit, I dunno, one of the guys from Arrow is here, he’s pretty good.
Overall: They’re all guilty pleasure movies, at best, but aside from the last one, they’re not awful, and you could do a lot worse. However, as we’ll learn next time, you could also do a hell of a lot better.
The Punisher (1989): 5/10
The Punisher (2004): 6/10
Punisher: War Zone: 4/10