R, 2 hr. 4 min. Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh. Release Date: April 16, 2004. DVD Release Date: September 7, 2004.
It’s Cinco de Mayo, the most drunken holiday of the year (unless you’re Irish), and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I woke up at 2:00AM after a whopping 90 minutes of sleep. I’m not sure what woke me from a sound sleep, but I awoke instantly, and was wide awake, eyes and ears peeled for something that was just beyond my reach. As a result, I’m doing my movie early today. It’s becoming a pattern, one that I need to break as quickly as possible. But, it could be worse: I could hate my choice for today.
In the geeky depths of my soul, I really want to make the obvious comparison between the Punisher and Batman. There are lots of similarities, and I don’t doubt for even a moment that Punisher was Marvel’s answer to Batman. But, I’m going to stray from these obvious comparisons… mostly because The Punisher, at least the 2004 version, beats the crap out of all but the last two Batman movies. It was a smart thing to pretend that the 1980s Punisher movie never happened, because that movie was the reason the word “disavow” was coined. But, there are a few minor story problems that presented this from being an iron-clad beginning to a strong, high-quality comic franchise.
Of all Marvel’s heroes, did this one really deserve his own movie? It’s the first problem I run across in my exploration of the filmed Marvelverse. And yes, I did just say Marvelverse. The Punisher’s cool, but what can he do except blow stuff up? When you look at Marvel’s other film offerings, there’s a CLEAR line between the hero and the normal person. Here, we basically have some guy who decides that going on a bloody rampage is healthier than a shrink. He’s good at it, but, come on. Even Batman doesn’t run around axing people on an average of every six minutes (I counted), and let’s face it, Batman isn’t exactly going through the motions worrying about how badly he’s beating the crap out of evil henchmen. If your family’s getting gunned down, and you’re a grown man, what are the chances that you’re going to jump on a scooter and shout “peace out, bitchez!” as you flee the killing ground? Was Florida really a good back drop for something THIS gritty? Not even close. Was it okay for Johnny Saint, heir to the Saint crime empire, to run around rocking the Twihard pompadour? Hell, no.
You have story problems, and then you have Thomas Jane. The man was rigid in this movie, even in those places where he should have been somewhat normal. I struggled to buy his impression as a family man and FBI agent. Once the death toll starts rising, he actually manages to fit the part, because you aren’t expecting an active sociopath to be running around smiling at people or making goo goo eyes at Rebecca Romeijn… although no one could fault him if she did, especially now that she’s not all blue and spiky. There’s probably a reason that none of this cast managed to find its way into the sequel.
Despite the problems, The Punisher is fun watching. Frank Castle might not be able to fly, or lift multi-ton objects, or shoot lasers out of his eyes, but the man has an absolute talent for sociopathic killing sprees and explosive, gratuitous violence. I like the vengeance riff, although I don’t like that we’re treated to a voice over of the Punisher explaining that what he’s doing isn’t vengeance, although a whole story of vengeance and counter-vengeance kind of hints at the lie. This was relatively early in Marvel’s 21st century attempt to expand successfully into the film world before DC could drag the whole comic genre into some popularity quagmire. They’ve done better work since, but this isn’t horrible.
Oh, the ending blows. Really. This movie was straight from my collection, and I pretty much have a hard time watching the last fifteen minutes. It's dull, despite the rampant killdozing. The ending is also filled with too many hints that the Punisher is both trying to reclaim his humanity (despite all the rejections of same throughout the machine) and working to reject it. Basically, it's film's version of the CYA game as preparation for the upcoming (and shoddy) sequel.