Cruel and Unusual Cinematic Punishment


When I first started Reel Goddess I looked upon it as a medium for me to watch older films that I hadn’t previously seen so that I could write about them.  Once I started getting into the habit of writing everyday I thought of other ways I utilize the site in regards to film.  Then I came up with the brilliant…and I mean utterly brilliant idea of watching all three versions of The Punisher films.   I had previously seen the first and second iterations, so I already knew what I was getting myself into.  I have no idea why I chose this particular series.  I suppose you could call it a form of self punishment.

I figured since I had planned on finally watching the latest reboot, I might as well give them all a go so I started at the beginning.  I was able to get my hands on a copy of the 1989 version starring Dolph Lundgren (thanks Ron!) and the minute the opening credits started, I was in pain.

Not having a very strong foothold in the Punisher realm, even I know that this film is the one that follows the comics the least.  Dolph rides around in black, on a motorcycle, taking out mob guys and saving kids.  He doesn’t even wear the skull.  The only thing Punisher related here is the bad shading they did on his face so that his actual face would resemble the skull.  His Frank Castle is a former cop who turns into vengeance unbound after his family is murdered. Ok so the murdered family does follow the comic, but really, that’s about it. You only get hints of the back story as told in flashbacks and at the beginning of the film he’s already well into Punisher mode with a high body count tally sheet and a file at police HQ.

For some reason, I have a soft spot for Dolph so I don’t really mind is frolicking in the land of the B-movies.  But this film is just plain bad.  I don’t put all the blame on him though.  I blame the writer.  And the director.  And the studio.  And whoever signed off on those opening credits.  Yeah you guy…..not cool.

I watched this back in 1991 when it was released on video and I remember cringing then.  Well it certainly didn’t get any better with age.  It’s not a fine wine or cheese that’s for sure.  Is it possible for this film to have been better? Sure.  Anything can be improved.  The comic book adaptions back then certainly aren’t what they are today.  But hey, that’s what the reboots are for.  This material would be back again for another go.

In 2004 The Punisher made its second appearance with the Thomas Jane version.  This version was bigger and badder than its predecessor and was supposed to be the relaunch of the franchise.  Not a sequel, but a reboot.  This one I saw in the theater and as much as I like Thomas Jane (mainly because of Deep Blue Sea)……(yeah I liked Deep Blue Sea) this version left me a bit cold.  Again.

With the 2004 version we basically get an origin story.  This time Frank Castle is a Fed and after the son of a high-profile bad guy get killed during Frank’s final mission, the father of the dead son seeks revenge by taking out Frank’s entire family.  I’m not just talking about his wife and kids.  No.  Wife, kids, in-laws, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews, you name it.  Everyone, except Frank, gets whacked.  It’s a ridiculous scene of bloody epic proportions.  From there we know exactly what’s going to happen.  Frank is going to raise holy hell and take revenge for his family.  This outing however, he does sport the skull.  It’s got some sentimental value to it as it’s on a t-shirt his son gave him. Awwww.

The main issue I had with this film was John Travolta.  He played the bad guy, Howard Saint, and it was just a bit too over the top for me.  I didn’t hate this film, but if you were to ask me how it was, I’d probably respond with and unenthusiastic “meh”.  That doesn’t say much.  I like Thomas Jane in the role, but still didn’t think he was a perfect fit.  He looked really awesome though.

As I was watching this version, it struck me right toward the end that at its core, this version is a Western.  Everything from the steely eyed glances from Jane, to his stance and his walk, to the musical score and especially the ending showdown between Frank and Howard.  It wreaks of a Western.  This wasn’t something I picked up on the first time I watched it, but this time it stuck out like a sore thumb.  I even ran my observation past a couple of friends and they agreed.  Grossing just over $54 million, it didn’t perform as well as was hoped and just a short four years later, we’d get yet another reboot.

In 2008 the latest Punisher film was released with Punisher: War Zone.  This was the one that I hadn’t seen.  I was actually pretty excited to finally watch it because from what I could tell, this guy….Ray Stevenson WAS the Punisher.  He had the look physically and he also had the demeanor.  Oh, and he wore the skull.  It was faint…but it was there none the less.

P:WZ was not told from the aspect of an origin story.  Again, he’s already made a name for himself by taking out any and every bad guy that shows up on his radar.  We find out about his family in a flashback and this time, it’s truer to the comics.  It’s never said that he was a cop or a fed either which in the previous films he was both, respectively.  To set the record straight, in the comics Frank Castle was not either.  He was actually a highly decorated marine who was a weapons and hand to hand combat specialist.  Of course it would be something like that.  He’s got to get his skills from somewhere right?

P:WZ was all blood and shell casings peppered with creative ways of killing people.  I actually HA-HA-HA’d in one part that showed a punk pulling a somersault parkour move getting blasted in mid-air by what looked like a mini rocket launcher.  Ridiculous bordering on the absolute absurd.  It got the point where it was a bit painful to watch and not because of the blood, but because it was just bad.  Ray Stevenson wasn’t bad…but the film was.  Stevenson, in my opinion made the best Punisher out of the three.  I loved him in the role.  He was perfect.  But everything else around him failed on a colossal scale.  My biggest bitch has to do with the villains played by Dominic West and Doug Hutchinson.  First let me say that both are fine actors.  Their accents are what drove me to my breaking point.  I get that the characters were probably supposed to be a bit flamboyant, but it just got to the point where it was unbearable.

Needless to say P:WZ didn’t turn out to be the hit that the studio was hoping for.  It’s total worldwide gross was just over $8 million dollars.  Considering its budget was $35 million, the studio took a pretty big hit.

This is a character that’s had three films and two of them have been reboots.  At the Marvel panel at Comic-Con in 2010, Kevin Feige made mention that Marvel now has the rights for the Punisher (Lionsgate held them previously) and that they hope the bring Frank Castle “into the fray”.   That would mean yet another reboot.  However with Marvel being in control of their own property maybe that’s what this character needs.

I, for one would love to see a kick ass story about a kick ass character.  The Punisher is really the only comic I’ve really read and I’d like to see Frank get his day in the sun.   The three films that have been made all have their good qualities.  Well, except that first one because really, there is nothing about it that works.  I liked the story of the second one and how it carried the Western vibe.  I love Ray Stevenson playing the character.  If I could put Stevenson in Jane’s movie and have him exact revenge on Dolph’s version, then that would be the perfect Punisher film.

That comment by Feige was made back in 2010 and I haven’t heard anything since so I’m not really sure what’s going on.  It’s a waiting game what with all the plans for the Avengers and their individual films.  I do think that there’s room for a good Punisher story and I really hope one day the fans will get to see it.

0 thoughts on “Cruel and Unusual Cinematic Punishment

  1. First, I appreciate your willingness to use your valuable time on 3 movies which were less than good, and great article for my favorite anti-hero.

    As one of the world’s biggest Punisher fans (lame accomplishment, but whatever), I must agree with The Reel Goddess. Strictly speaking of the character in the movies, Stevenson hit the nail on the head. He was older, proper origin, cared for innocent, despised and killed the bad guys (even women were not safe), a one man army of ass kicking brutality. pretty much the character from The Punisher Max series.

    But, we are talking movies not comics I agree with the 2004 “Western” feeling, actually my favorite character was “Dave”, the guy with the piercings, that part of him being tortured was straight out of the comic, I loved how he stuck up for Frank.

    I honestly think that Punisher movies will NEVER hit the proper mark, however…I’ve thought that The Punisher would perfectly translate to an HBO Animated series, something in the style of ‘Spawn” but more centered on the Punisher mission. Ultra-violent, Bloody, Action packed and could also get in some random hero appearances, like Daredevil, S.H.I.E.L.D, Wolverine and a swing by from Spidey….

    Anyway…just my thoughts.

    • I really liked the character of Dave in the Thomas Jane version as well. Ben Foster has come a long way since that role. I also liked Micro in the Ray Stevenson version.

      An animated series might work, but I would love to see them at least get close to the mark with a film.

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