Time: 124 Minutes
Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/Punisher
John Travolta as Howard Saint
Will Patton as Quentin Glass
Rebecca Romijn as Joan
Ben Foster as Spacker Dave
Roy Scheider as Frank Castle Sr.
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
After his wife and family are murdered by a gang of ruthless criminals, special agent Frank Castle takes it upon himself to hunt down and punish the criminals responsible for his loss.
The Punisher has had many on-screen adaptations, I was only familiar with the Netflix version starring Jon Bernthal, as well as 2008’s Punisher: War Zone starring Ray Stevenson. There are also two other known adaptations of The Punisher, one in 1989 with Dolph Lundgren, and another in 2004 starring Thomas Jane. I heard mixed things about both, but nonetheless I decided to check out the latter, and I enjoyed it in spite of its flaws.
The first thing to note about The Punisher is that it was made in the earlier years of comic book movies, and was a Marvel movie before the MCU was a thing. It feels like a movie first, and a comic book movie second. That in itself is something to appreciate especially with the MCU today. If you went into this movie without knowing its comic book source, it would work perfectly fine as an action movie. That being said, one of the big issues is that the tone is all over the place with what its aiming to be, and it is a weird mix overall. A big aspect about The Punisher character is that he’s meant to show the dark side and consequences of being a vigilante, this movie skips that in favour for a revenge fantasy. Not to say that there aren’t attempts at showing depth, the initial tragedy that the protagonist experiences is treated very seriously. However it just doesn’t go deep enough it is clear that it is more focused on the revenge. It is indeed very dark (as were most comic book movies released in the 2000s), but some o the nihilism is played so straight that it become unintentionally funny. At the same time, a lot of the movie feels like its aiming to be throwback to the B-level revenge thrillers of the 70s, the source material seemed to be pulpy, and there’s plenty of moments throughout the film where it goes for that. It also has goofy dialogue and one liners alongside the brutal violence. However, it even suffers as a revenge thriller, especially with how cliched and routine it feels. Another thing holding this movie back is that whatever way you’re reading the movie, the story is a bit dull. The overall length is over 2 hours and it’s a bit too long for this movie. The story and characters aren’t that interesting or given enough depth, so there are moments where you are just waiting for the action to appear again.
Thomas Jane is the thing most remembered about this movie, as he plays Frank Castle/The Punisher. I still prefer Jon Bernthal’s version of the character, but Jane is good here and one of the highlights of the movie. We see Castle start off fairly light hearted towards the beginning, and then becoming cold and calculating when he becomes the Punisher. That being said, I feel like he doesn’t get much chance to show his Punisher off. The character isn’t that interesting here, and he doesn’t have much personality outside of brooding and seeking revenge. Still, Jane plays his part well. Something that would keep the movie exciting is by having the Punisher go up against an over the top and memorable villain. The main antagonist in this movie is Howard Saint, a mobster who is responsible for the death of Frank Castle’s family, and he is played by John Travolta. However, this character and performance are the most disappointing parts of the whole movie. You’ve seen this type of mobster villain in plenty of other action movies and nothing about this version is remarkable. The idea of Travolta playing him had potential, and had he brought some of his manic energy from his previous on screen villains like in Face/Off or Broken Arrow, it would’ve really made the movie more fun to watch. Weirdly though, Travolta plays things so straight to the point of it being emotionless and dull, and he doesn’t even succeed in being convincingly menacing. There are some other actors who are generally good, including Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn and Roy Scheider, with Will Patton as Travolta’s henchman being the standout.
This is Jonathan Hensleigh’s first movie, and while his directing can be a bit of a mixed bag, it is a decent debut. On a technical level it is solid, if unremarkable. While the editing can be a bit shaky, on the whole there are some good action scenes. This is definitely an R rated movie, and that works to its advantage. This is a very violent Punisher movie, and they definitely deliver on the brutality. In some ways it feels like the R rated action movies of the 90s, and if that’s what they were going for, they succeeded.
2004’s The Punisher is far from being one of the best comic book movies or one of the best adaptations of the character. The writing is unremarkable, the story is dull, and the tone is confused. However, I still enjoyed it; I appreciated the different tone compared to the comic book movies of today, the action is entertaining, and Thomas Jane is pretty good as The Punisher. It’s an above average action thriller which is mostly forgettable, but I’m glad I saw it.