ImageThe Punisher is one of Marvel Comics’ most popular characters. Introduced in 1974, the Punisher was unlike the Marvel and DC superheroes of that time. An antihero vigilante, the Punisher uses murder and torture to dispose of his enemies, methods that most superheroes are against using. In the world of comic books, the Punisher was unique for a long time before the publishers decided to capitalize on his popularity and reimagine other superheroes such as Batman as more dark and violent. However, in the world of Hollywood, characters like the Punisher are a cliche. This type of character has existed since the days of Charles Bronson’s DEATHWISH and Clint Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY films. Successfully translating the Punisher cinematically is very difficult to pull off because his origin story doesn’t stand out among the countless tough guy action movies that littered our cinematic landscape in the 80’s and 90’s. To complicate things further, the Punisher’s popularity in the comic books has significantly declined since the early 2000’s. At one time, the Punisher was just as popular as Spider-Man, X-Men and Wolverine. That is no longer true today and so his property value is a shell of what it once was.

In 1989, New World Pictures made a loose adaptation of the Punisher. It starred Dolph Lundgren and not surprisingly, it was an atrocity. After Avi Arad took control of the bankrupt Marvel Entertainment, a whole slew of film adaptations of Marvel’s superheroes came out. This included 2004’s THE PUNISHER, with Thomas Jane this time playing the vigilante. In the film, Frank Castle (The Punisher) is an undercover FBI agent that retires after stopping an illegal arms deal resulting in the killing of Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son. Saint wants revenge against Castle for the death of his son and so he finds Castle’s whereabouts and sends a goon squad to kill Castle’s entire family, including his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son. Castle barely survives the massacre and reemerges as The Punisher, a vigilante seeking the death of Saint and his family for what Saint did to his own family.

The strange thing about the casting choice of Thomas Jane to play the Punisher is that I was more convinced of his portrayal of the Punisher in DIRTY LAUNDRY, a short film made in 2012 that can be seen here, than I was of his portrayal in the 2004 film. Its not that Jane is a bad actor or that he does a poor job portraying the anti-hero. My issue is that I think there were much better casting choices to play Frank Castle than Jane. Frank Castle should look a little less Anglo-Saxon, more beefy, and less of a pretty boy than Thomas Jane. Someone like Jon Hamm. I thought Ray Winstone was a better looking Punisher in PUNISHER WAR ZONE than Thomas Jane, but I have not seen that film so I can’t attest to Winstone’s performance. All in all, Thomas Jane does a decent job playing the Punisher, but I always felt like someone better could have been found. Had we gotten Thomas Jane’s Punisher in DIRTY LAUNDRY, we would not be having this conversation and in light of this, I would be open to seeing Jane reprise his role in another Punisher film.

Another big issue with THE PUNISHER is the fact that the film is set in Tampa, Florida. The city was chosen for budgetary reasons after the film’s budget was reportedly slashed to a fraction of what the filmmakers were initially promised. That is all fine and good, but I cannot imagine the Punisher operating in a tropical/sunny environment. The Punisher has to be set in New York City. He is from there and his family was killed in Central Park. NYC has always been his base of operations and considering that most of the villains he goes up against are mobsters, there isn’t a better location than the grimy, urban jungle that NYC offers.

The Punisher came to be as a result of his family’s massacre. For this film to succeed, we should empathize with Castle’s loss after his family is murdered. In order to do that, we must see Castle interact with his family and basically show him to be a family man. For a 2+ hour movie, not much is shown of Frank Castle interacting with his family. Sure, there is a long scene family reunion sequence that takes place in Puerto Rico where Castle briefly interacts with his wife and son. Furthermore, Castle’s family’s massacre is brutal, especially given how not just his wife and son are murdered, but also his parents and other relatives. The sequence effectively makes you hate the villains and makes you want to see them killed. However, we don’t feel for Castle’s loss as much as we should because not enough time is spent where we see Castle spending time with his family.

Despite the brutal disposal of Castle’s family, John Travolta’s Howard Saint fails to live up to being a compelling villain. Travolta clearly showed up to collect his paycheck, look good in front of the camera wearing expensive suits, and leave. Where is the Travolta from FACE OFF and BROKEN ARROW? Better yet, where is the better actor that should have been cast and the better writer that should have developed a more interesting character? Like I stated before, THE PUNISHER needed to be set in NYC and Castle should have gone up against an entire mob organization. Here, the stakes and challenge don’t feel big enough. Howard Saint’s successful murder of Castle’s family seems to be something he got lucky in getting away with, but once Castle turns into the Punisher, there is no doubting that Castle will handily dispose of him, his family, and henchmen. I wish we could have instead seen the Punisher take on an entire organization like the Mafia or the Yakuza.

One of the bright spots in the film are the supporting characters that live in Frank Castle’s ghetto apartment building. Rebecca Romijn plays Joan, a waitress with a dark past, Ben Foster plays Spacker Dave, a crack addict-looking slacker, and John Pinette is Bumpo, some fat guy who likes to eat and cook. They provide some comic relief in an otherwise bleak film. In the Punisher comic books, the Punisher has an assistant who specializes in high-tech gadgetry, sort of like James Bond’s Q. Here, the Punisher sort of has a helper who works for Saint. The other named characters don’t provide that sort of assistance, but they do provide Castle with emotional support.

THE PUNISHER is the film that could have been. It appears to have been cursed from the very beginning with a mediocre director (Jonathan Hensleigh), a mediocre screenplay (by Hensleigh and Michael France), a low budget, poor casting, and even bad cinematography (from Conrad W. Hall, the son of the legendary and wonderful DP, the late Conrad Hall). Whatever high points THE PUNISHER had for me came from the nostalgia of seeing a favorite comic book character on the big screen, but that was nowhere enough to save this dreck of a film. For anyone else, once you remove his signature skull shirt, THE PUNISHER is virtually indistinguishable from any other B-action movie.