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The Marvel Movies: The Punisher (2004)

by on June 17, 2011
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Marvel has spent more than 20 years trying to make a decent Punisher film. They never really succeeded (though the latest version, “Punisher: War Zone,” arguably came the closest). Their most perplexing failure of the three, though, is this 2004 version starring, of all people, handsome, square-jawed pretty boy Thomas Jane. (OK, so “pretty boy” might be pushing it, but he’s not exactly the most Castlest Frank of the bunch.

If you don’t recall our previous “Punisher” entry, here’s the story: FBI agent Frank Castle is left traumatized when his family is gunned down in cold blood. He takes vengeance by going underground, roaming the streets of New York and “punishing” criminals with a virtual arsenal of weaponry, wearing a skull on his chest to intimidate his victims.

The 2004 version tweaked a few things, giving us lots of bucks but little bang. Mistake number one: moving the action from the gritty urban wasteland of New York to the gritty urban wasteland of … Tampa, Florida!? The iconic “Punisher” skull was a t-shirt gift from Castle’s…son!? The film’s Big Bad, the bad dude to play the dude bad enough to be rival to the Punisher himself is … John Travolta!?

It isn’t a good start and only gets worse when we get an extended prologue with Castle as a loving family man, hanging out with his family at a family reunion in … Puerto Rico (what kind of family can afford to fly everyone to Puerto Rico?!). They were charming scenes but not exactly the stuff the stoic loner Castle is best known as. He’s far too well-adjusted to be a psychopath.

Then Castle moves into a ramshackle apartment building and takes up with a trio of comically ridiculous misfits: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, the hottest misfit you’ll ever see, doubling up on her superhero movies; a super-pierced Ben Foster; and John Pinette, playing the overweight Bumpo. They turn him into a man of mystery, and he befriends them

Jane is a solid actor, but he’s not quite right for the role. He does the best with what he’s given, which is very, very little. As the Punisher, he looks like a greased-up teenaged hood more than a stone-cold government-trained assassin. Travolta commits the cardinal sin of sleepwalking through what should have been a scene-chewing, ham-it-up role, making for a terrible villain.

The actors are fed horrific lines; at one point the Punisher says to two of his victims, contract killers both of them, “How much did Saint pay you for each one? Or did he get a group rate discount?”

The action sequences are mostly merely ho-hum, but admittedly it’s hard to get excited for shootouts when everything leading up to them is so bland. There is one fun sequence near the film’s midpoint where the Punisher battles the silent, lumbering man known as “The Russian,” played by pro wrestler Kevin Nash and wearing a red-and-white striped shirt at which Popeye would laugh. Somehow this scene works.

Its goodwill is balanced by a bizarre scene where a middle-aged dude with a teardrop tattoo under his eye steps into a diner, pulls out a guitar, serenades Castle, threatens him and leaves, leading to a somewhat nonsensical chase / fight scene.

The film could also be considered a touch misogynistic and even homophobic; it’s Saint’s wife who gives the order to kill Castle’s entire family (when she could have merely ordered his death; a big deal is made of this), and Quentin Glass (Will Patton), Saint’s right-hand man, is gay for no other reason than to show how “sick” he is (a character doing voiceover actually says he’s a “sadist” at the moment it’s revealed he’s gay). These are admittedly a bit subjective but are valid points to raise nonetheless.

It all leads up to a showy finale where the Punisher does the silliest of all superhero movie cliches by, in the midst of dispatching a host of bad guys, he creates an outline of his logo in gasoline, and it predictably is set on fire. I guess even heroes aren’t above marketing.

Bad movie aside, Jane actively campaigned to reprise his role in the film that became “Punisher: War Zone,” and was extremely disappointed when it went to Ray Stevenson of HBO’s “Rome.” Jane is a stand-up guy, and deserved a better shot at real acting stardom than this turd.

Next Time: The Spider-Sequel!

Previous Marvel Movie Entries

Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Red Sonja (1985)
Howard the Duck (1986)
The Punisher (1989)
Captain America (1990)
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Blade (1998)
X-Men (2000)
Blade II (2002)
Spider-Man (2002)
Daredevil (2003)
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Hulk (2003)