Film

Cartoon Film 'The Punisher' Is Like 'Friends' but with Lowlives and a Homicidal Neighbor

Thomas Jane in The Punisher (2004) (© 2004 Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved. / IMDB)

At times Jonathan Hensleigh's film is ultra-violent and unpleasant, while at other times it is jokey or farcical, while still at other times it strikes a muddled balance between very silly material and deathly serious performances.

Although the comic book film boom was in full swing in early 2004, Marvel was beginning to experience diminishing returns with franchise launches. Its first three major adaptations, Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man, had each yielded sequels, while more recent attempts, Daredevil and Hulk, had floundered upon release. Elsewhere, comic book films were having similarly mixed results, particularly for the directors of the Blade films. Stephen Norrington, director of Blade (1998), helmed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was released in July 2003. The film over-simplified the extremely literate and well-researched source material, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, and became a showcase for some of the shoddiest visual effects of the early-'00s, a time known for overly-ambitious CGI extravaganzas. It also seemingly ended the careers of its director, who has yet to direct another film, and cinematic legend Sean Connery, who retired from acting following the experience.

Alternatively, Guillermo del Toro, director of Blade II (2002), found his perfect comic book property with Mike Mignola's Hellboy, released in April 2004. The film is excellent, filled with imaginative visuals, exciting set-pieces, and a perfect lead performance from Ron Perlman. Hellboy is everything one would hope to find in a comic book film. On the independent side of comics and film, Harvey Pekar's autobiographical books were adapted into American Splendor (2003), starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, which is a touching, dryly funny gem.

Meanwhile, for their sixth attempt at launching a franchise, Marvel chose the Punisher. The Punisher was one of 15 characters (including Captain America, Thor and Black Panther) that Marvel licensed to Artisan Entertainment in May 2000. Only two of these characters, the Punisher and Man-Thing, were adapted into films. The latter was barely released, while the former is the film I discuss in this article. That only two films of the Marvel deal were made is mainly due to Artisan's precarious situation in the early-'00s. The "mini-major" studio was the target of several potential acquisitions, including one attempt by Marvel Entertainment in the summer of 2003, while The Punisher was in production. This bold move by Marvel makes one wonder what could have been, had Marvel acquired a production studio in 2003 with major characters such as Captain America and Thor already in place. We may have seen a very different Marvel Cinematic Universe established several years earlier. Marvel was not successful, however, and Artisan was acquired by Lionsgate in December 2003.

It's difficult to judge precisely how this behind-the-scenes tumult impacted the production of The Punisher, but the budget certainly comes to mind. The Punisher cost $33 million, the least of any of the Marvel films to date. That might have worked wonderfully for the film if it had leaned into its '70s B-movie ("grindhouse") trappings. But first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh failed to channel his inner Robert Rodriguez and, as a result, The Punisher lacks a consistent tone. At times, the film is ultra-violent and unpleasant, while at other times it is jokey or farcical, while still at other times it strikes a muddled balance between very silly material and deathly serious performances. Ultimately, the film would be another entry in Marvel's growing list of aborted franchise launches, and become one of their lowest grossing films to this day.

Frank Castle/The Punisher was created by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, with design input by John Romita, for Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974). He was presented as a highly-trained Vietnam veteran turned vigilante, with no compunction about killing his enemies. Although Conway based the Punisher on Don Pendleton's Executioner book series from the '60s, the character had many cinematic analogues during the grittiness of the '70s. Months after the first appearance of the Punisher, Death Wish (1974) was released and became a huge smash. Two years later, Taxi Driver (1976) told a similar story of a twisted man being pushed over the edge by crime with violent results. Even cops depicted in films were being pushed to extreme measures by crime, as seen in Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), and Walking Tall (1973), to name a few. In comics, however, the Punisher's methods placed him in stark contrast to heroes such as Spider-Man, Captain America and Daredevil, in whose books he guest-starred in the '70s and early-'80s. In Spectacular Spider-Man #83 (October 1983), the Punisher's motivations, as inspired by the Executioner, were finally explained. His family was killed by criminals, causing Frank Castle to snap and begin a one-man war on crime. In that issue, Spider-Man wonders if anything could ever happen to cause him to cross the line like Frank.

As the '80s progressed, the comics world began to shift more towards violence and anti-heroes, and the Punisher suddenly became the quintessential ideal of the era. The Punisher's first ongoing book launched in 1986, and by 1990 Marvel was publishing five Punisher-related books. In 1989, the first Punisher film was released and starred Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle. I have not seen the film, but the contemporary reviews were not kind and it failed to make much of an impact at the box office. Despite this, the Punisher's success in comics continued unabated until the mid-'90s. At that point, tastes seemed to be changing again, and the violent anti-heroes of the previous ten years fell out of favour. The Punisher found renewed success when Garth Ennis rebooted the character in April 2000 as a part of Marvel Knights, an imprint known for more mature content. Ennis drew from nearly 30 years of stories to deliver what is still considered to be the definitive work on the character, a back-to-basics approach filled with action, pathos and a dark humour. He also expanded the Punisher's supporting cast with Frank's neighbours, cops on his trail, and key villains. These were the stories fresh in the minds of the filmmakers, and some of the elements were incorporated into The Punisher. The results, unfortunately, were not the same as the comics.

Film poster (IMDB)

As previously mentioned, the major issue with The Punisher is tone. The influences seem to range from very serious revenge films to spaghetti western to campy grindhouse revenge flicks to farce. The tonal shifts between scenes is jarring enough, but oftentimes different actors seem to be playing different tones within the same scene. Most of the time, Thomas Jane, who portrays Frank Castle/The Punisher, plays the role deathly straight, and most of the first act of the film seems to reflect his approach.

At the start of the film, Frank is an undercover FBI agent completing his final mission before he can settle into a desk job and spend more time with his wife and young son. The mission, an arms deal sting in Tampa, Florida, goes awry, and one of the buyers is killed. The dead man turns out to be the youngest son of Howard Saint, a highly successful Tampa money launderer, who vows revenge on Frank. Frank, meanwhile, begins his settled life with a family reunion in Puerto Rico. Saint's men crash the reunion, killing every member of Frank's extended family including, they believe, Frank. After recovering from his wounds, Frank returns to Tampa, moves into a rundown apartment, and plans a complex revenge scheme on Saint and his people. This is a solid setup for a revenge film and, honestly, it works well enough. Certain aspects of the first act slide into campy, exploitation film territory (odd music cues, choppy editing, unnecessary fade-outs), but the real tonal problems begin in the second act with the introduction of Frank's new neighbours.

Frank's new home looks, on its exterior, like an abandoned warehouse and seems to house only three other people. Joan, played by Rebecca Romijn, is a diner waitress with poor taste in men. Dave, played by Ben Foster, is a meek but piercing enthusiast. Finally, Bumpo, played by John Pinette, is a sweet cooking enthusiast. The trio seem to do everything together, and take a great interest in Frank's comings and goings. One day they overhear Frank torturing an informant but the next day he ejects Joan's abusive boyfriend. So, despite the torture, they readily accept Frank into their group. Through this subplot, The Punisher slips into the tired trope of a group of characters too-quickly dubbing themselves a family, and acting as such. When done with thought and care, this can be very sweet and rewarding in a film. When rushed or superficial, as in The Punisher, it can feel cloying and manipulative. Frank has no reason to associate with these people, and he never seems to warm to them. This does not prevent them from insinuating themselves into his business or, in the case of Joan, inappropriately hitting on a man whose family was killed just months earlier. Beyond the internal illogic of these relationships, Thomas Jane handles all of his scenes with the neighbours so seriously that the characters move beyond contrast and begin to feel like they are in completely different films. Joan, Dave and Bumpo are meant to be levity in an otherwise dour, violent film, but they feel like they're are a sitcom. It's like Friends, but with a trio of good-natured lowlives and their alcoholic, revenge-driven, homicidal neighbour down the hall.

The sitcom subplot would not be fatal to the film if the main revenge plot excelled but it doesn't fare much better. The Punisher repeatedly places Frank in violently comical situations, but they unfold so seriously that the energy is completely sapped from the film. To give a counterexample, the film Airplane (1980) was a groundbreaking comedy in part because the situations were absolutely ridiculous but the actors played them like they were in the most serious drama. This made the jokes even funnier. Perhaps the problem with The Punisher is that the jokes are not so elevated or ridiculous, so they only come across as odd or out-of-place. There's the aforementioned torture scene: Frank chains Mickey, played by Eddie Jemison, upside-down and shows him an active blowtorch. Frank then describes the sensations of shock Mickey will feel, while simulating them with a popsicle and a burning steak. The scene should be light-hearted -- as light-hearted as torture can be -- but it falls flat. Similarly, Frank encounters a southern hitman hired by Howard Saint named Harry Heck. Heck appears in a diner, plays a song for Frank as way of warning/ threatening him, then leaves. This is a deeply silly idea that, once again, falls flat because The Punisher doesn't play up the comedy or absurdity. Even when Frank ultimately disposes of Heck with a projectile knife-blade,which flies into Heck's neck with a quick cut and spurt of blood that would be at home in Machete (2010), the film gives the campiness no time to breathe.

The apex of the tonal issues in The Punisher occurs when another hitman, the Russian, attacks Frank in his apartment. After a dinner with his neighbours, Frank declines Joan's offer to help him forget his recently-murdered extended family, son, and beloved wife by sleeping with her. A dejected Joan visits Dave and Bumpo, who tries to cheer her up by dancing to a recording of a Verdi opera. Unbeknownst to them, the enormous Russian attacks Frank in the next apartment. Frank does not fare well, with all the hidden weapons and traps in his apartment failing to phase his attacker. The scene is cartoonish, Looney Tunes cartoonish, with Frank doing double-takes each time one of his tricks fail. It turns the movie, which has so far featured heavy violence, real stakes, and failed levity, into a farce for several minutes. It's as if, after so many failed attempts, the filmmakers upped the comedy to such a degree that they wildly overcorrected. The sequence undermines the seriousness of the film, as well as the competence of Frank, who is meant to be a well-prepared, precise vengeance-seeker.

In fact, The Punisher utterly fails to establish Frank as the highly-trained enforcer that is depicted in the comics. The filmmakers seem intent on depicting the Punisher's origin as a learning experience for Frank, similar to the origins of Spider-Man and Daredevil. But unlike those characters, the Punisher is not discovering a newfound set of skills and abilities when he becomes a vigilante. He should already be completely competent as a killer and soldier from his previous life, and merely need to learn how to apply such skills to his war on crime. Frank Castle in The Punisher feels oddly unfinished, which hurts the film tremendously.

The tonal pendulum swings completely back following the Russian sequence, when Frank's work comes home to bear on his "family". Saint's men arrive to finish Frank at home but he is too injured from his fight with the Russian to fight back. Joan hides him, while Dave and Bumpo lie to Saint's men about his whereabouts. Saint's right-hand man, Quentin, proceeds to torture Dave by pulling out his body piercings with a pair of pliers in a deeply unpleasant scene. It's unpleasant for obvious reasons, but also because of its contrast to the cartoonish violence that preceded it. Furthermore, the "friends forming a family" trope is executed so superficially that Dave's standing up to such torture to protect Frank is completely unbelievable.

This brings The Punisher into the third act, when everything is tied up far too quickly and neatly. Frank has a clever plan to openly attack Saint's money laundering operation, while covertly creating the appearance of betrayal by those closest to Saint. The plan is perhaps a reference to Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), where a gunfighter rides into a town beset by gangs and plays them off each other to free the town. I'm aware that A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), but The Punisher is clearly angling for a western vibe, complete with two quick-draw duels. Frank manipulates Quentin and Saint's beloved wife into situations that implicate them in an affair. The setup for Frank's plan is well-done, but the execution is terribly rushed. All in one night, Saint is presented with incriminating phone bills, parking tickets, and documented sightings, and he unquestioningly accepts the worst conclusion. Without any discussion or explanation, Saint proceeds to kill Quentin and his wife, making mean-spirited jokes along the way.

John Travolta in The Punisher (2004) (© 2004 Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved. IMDB)

Howard Saint is played by John Travolta, who actually gives an interesting performance. The crazed villain persona he unleashed in such films as Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997) is clearly simmering under the surface, but it's tamped down under a calculating malaise. At first, it seemed like Travolta was both overacting and underacting the part, but ultimately I think his choices worked. Unfortunately, the immediate murder of his best friend and wife feels out of character, as if it happened so suddenly for no other reason than the film needed to finish soon. The serious, confident and calculating Howard Saint early in the film becomes immediately unhinged in order to bring The Punisher to its conclusion.

Ultimately, The Punisher seems unable to escape the trashy B-movie trappings of such a revenge tale, no matter how seriously it takes the subject matter. Most of the cast play the film totally straight, but they are undermined by silly situations, odd music cues and tacky editing. When they discover the location of Frank's family reunion, Saint's wife demands that Saint kill "his family. His whole family" with the melodrama of a soap opera diva, and the music blares like a '70s exploitation film. These types of music cues pop up frequently in the film. Silly scenes like Harry Heck's musical performance, Mickey's torture, or Howard Saint's fate (burned alive in a used car lot rigged to explode in shape of Frank's signature skull logo) belong in a campy grindhouse film, but are played too matter-of-factly to be funny. Cheesy lines ("God's gonna sit this one out"), choppy editing and over-the-top music cues are hallmarks of exploitation cinema, but The Punisher refuses to embrace them. When they are used intentionally, as Tarantino or Rodriguez have in many films, they feel like stylistic choices. They are a knowing reference/ tribute to filmmakers who either did not know better or could not afford better. Maybe the filmmakers of The Punisher could not afford better on their relatively small budget, but they certainly should have known better. When a film includes these exploitation elements but plays everything straight and serious, it gives the impression of bad acting, inept directing, and production cost-cutting.

The blame for these missteps lays with no one but Jonathan Hensleigh, the co-writer and director of the film. Hensleigh appears to have misunderstood his own film and its central character. The film plays like a '70s exploitation film with delusions of seriousness and grandeur. Had Hensleigh made a more tongue-in-cheek film, or allowed the inherent dark humour to play, the film would have been far more successful. Frank Castle, meant to be a supremely competent warrior waging an indiscriminate war against unprepared, disorganized criminals, is instead played as a mildly calculating, but sometimes bumbling, man with a single-focus of revenge. Like Daredevil and Hulk, The Punisher did not succeed in faithfully adapting a character that had been beloved and successful for decades in the comics.

Not coincidentally, the fate of The Punisher was similar to those films. Although many people involved with the film were contracted for sequels, they never materialized. Over four years later, the Punisher would reemerge on-screen, but with a different actor, different creative team, and different point of view, qualifying Punisher: War Zone (2008) as a reboot rather than a sequel. Ultimately, The Punisher was ignored upon release, and was quickly forgotten. The character that reflected such fantastic cinematic anti-heroes from the '70s failed to get his own great film.

In 2012, a short, unofficial fan-film titled Dirty Laundry was screened at San Diego Comic-Con. Directed by Phil Joanou, it stars Thomas Jane as Frank Castle dealing with a gang outside a laundromat. Though not perfect by any means, the 12-minute film certainly shows promise and makes me wonder what Jane could have done with the character had he been given another chance with better filmmakers. If you are at all interested in the Punisher, try to track down Dirty Laundry.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: No Stan Lee cameo. This is possibly because he didn't have a direct hand in the character's creation (though he was editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time), although that would not stop Lee in future films. Really, the tradition had not been established yet. That's four cameos in eight films.

First Appearances: Ben Foster, who played Dave in The Punisher, would appear as Warren Worthington III/Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand two years later.

Next Time: Spider-Man returns and Marvel Films achieve perfection.

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