The Punisher (2004) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence,  language, and brief nudity
Running Time: 124 min.

Cast: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, John Pinette, Roy Scheider, Samantha Pinette
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

Screenplay: Michael France, Jonathan Hensleigh
Review published April 19, 2004

While I am a comic book fan, and I have collected many issues of Marvel's "The Punisher" and some of its offshoot titles, I do feel that the character's limitations make it a weak choice for a big screen adaptation.  The main reason?  Frank Castle is really nothing more than a gun-toting vigilante that is almost no different than similar characters we've seen in many a movie over the years, from Bronson to Stallone to Seagal.  What might be a unique character in the world of superhero comics becomes derivative to the extreme in cinema, and without any new angles to breathe life in a long cycled-out genre, the recipe for success seems fruitless at best.

Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea, Dreamcatcher) gets the title role, and while he is a tad too charismatic to play hard-boiled Frank Castle, he does an admirable job during the crucial action scenes.  As an FBI agent, he worked undercover in the takedown of two men working for Tampa crime lord, Bobby Saint.  One of these men ends up dying, and he just so happens to be the son of Saint.  Saint's wife wants only one thing: revenge.  So Castle is hit where it hurts, with his family slaughtered and left for dead, he mounts a one-man vigilante campaign of retribution on those who took his life away.

This is the second time a Punisher film has been made, and while this is a step up in almost every department than the 1989 Dolph Lundgren/Lou Gossett endeavor, from a freshness standpoint, there is almost nothing in the 2004 update to make it worth viewing for anyone who isn't a "gun porn" fanatic.  The plotline is just far too simplistic, and every character is a superficial, unfeeling archetype, such that, while we understand that a man will want to seek revenge for past misdeeds, we never really gain a rooting interest or level of excitement at seeing anyone meet their downfall.

The reigns for The Punisher were handed to first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh (screenwriter for such films as Armageddon and Die Hard with a Vengeance) who makes this film a cross between a dark revenge film and a spaghetti western, not too dissimilar at times to the work of Sergio Leone.  Hensleigh worked over the script developed by Michael France (Cliffhanger, GoldenEye), who also co-penned other Marvel big screen projects such as The Hulk and the yet-to-be-released Fantastic Four.  While there are definitely some attempts at style in both the writing and directing, this style also suffers from the same sense of redundancy that the main plot does.

There really is only one audience for this kind of film, and unfortunately to The Punisher's producers, it is not the audience who enjoys the comic book character.  Only those who love dark violence and constant death and destruction will be sated by the paltry goods that Hensleigh delivers, while those expecting the quality adaptations that made Spider-Man and X-Men successful franchises will be severely disappointed by this first, and perhaps final, entry.

While the comic book Frank Castle was once left for dead only to resurface to make people's lives miserable, so to does he as a film character.  Lets hope that this time he stays dead and buried, instead of being resurrected in another 15 years to punish us again.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo