Revisiting The Punisher and The Punisher: War Zone

It's Thomas Jane vs Ray Stevenson, as Daniel puts the two latest Punisher movies head to head. It is not an evenly matched fight...

The Punisher

A lot has been written about The Punisher in recent times, mostly focusing on the fact that the character’s big screen outings have been less than worthy of the source material. In fact, with the recent addition of Punisher: War Zone to the line-up, critical reception went from lukewarm to almost sub zero which, in my opinion, was rather unfair.

Being a massive – and very vocal – supporter of the 2004 version starring Thomas Jane, I was interested to see what the 2008 re-boot would add to proceedings, given the torturous process the original direct sequel went through before being shitcanned in favour of what became War Zone.

So, having recently picked up the 2004 and 2008 movies (for the purposes of this article, we’re leaving Dolph Lungdren to one side) I decided a re-visit was in order, firstly just as an excuse for some good, old fashioned violence, but also to establish just what it is that has gone wrong with Frank Castle on the big screen.

The Punisher (2004)

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Having originally stumbled upon The Punisher whilst waiting in line for another film, I was hugely impressed when I finally got to see it. From the opening deal-gone-wrong right trough to the explosive final payoff, I was well and truly hooked.

I thought Thomas Jane did an excellent job, although given I had no prior knowledge of the character I had no comparison at first. John Travolta, as villain Howard Saint has an absolute blast. Whilst yes, he completely hams it up, he hits the mark perfectly for me, providing a comic book movie with its comic book villain.

Apparently learning from his frankly disastrous turn in Swordfish, Travolta is clearly enjoying himself here. Walking a fine line between refined and psychotic, slowly he begins to unravel as the Punisher puts his plan for revenge into action. And whilst The Punisher may well be the darkest material Marvel has to offer, comic relief isn’t usually far away.

Castle’s neighbourhood losers, Bumbo and Dave, offer a couple of laughs, as does the darkly humorous Harry Heck, a guitar playing hitman handily dispatched with a ballistic knife, but it’s the fight with The Russian (Kevin Nash), an impressively choreographed, superbly acted fight scene, that pits Thomas Jane against a man seemingly twice his size, making for a superbly violent confrontation that provides a humorous aside whilst not slowing the pace of the action. It also serves as a way of showing that Frank Castle is by no means a super hero, having him beaten to within an inch of his life and hiding out to recover.

The film’s dark heart, inevitably, is Thomas Jane’s titular antihero. Jane pours everything into this role, physically transforming to become Castle, whilst also fully embracing the tortured soul essential to the portrayal. As we recently saw in Frank Darabont’s excellent adaptation of The Mist, Jane does tortured exceptionally well (anyone familiar with the ending will know exactly what I mean).

Despite all this however, The Punisher did only moderate business at the box office, with a decent DVD return being the catalyst for a sequel that dived headfirst into development hell. Both its star and director (Jonathan Hensleigh) eventually quit the project leading to the casting of Ray Stevenson for another take on the character in Punisher: War Zone.

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Punisher: War Zone

Upon first viewing I had only one word for this movie and that word was amazing. This is not to be taken literally, however, as the film itself is really, genuinely terrible.

What I mean when I say amazing is that it is by far the most unexpected fun I have had at the cinema in a very long time. The reason for this is simple; I went in expecting a dark, brooding actioner about a tortured man with a motive for vengeance and a thirst for bloodshed. What I saw was a day-glo mess of ridiculous set pieces, terrible acting almost across the board (Ray Stevenson’s Punisher being the only exception) and dialogue so forced, so corny, that they might as well have been making a porn film, rendering every minute inappropriately hilarious.

Now, I like Dominic West, I really do. I think his work as McNulty in The Wire is exceptional, but this is just wrong. The faux New Yawk accent is eternally grating, but that isn’t the worst of it. His horrendous disfigurement and transformation into the villainous Jigsaw and the mental repercussions of this would have made for an exciting, deeply interesting character. West instead goes for laughs, coming off as cheap, completely over the top and, worst of all, not even remotely funny.

Doug Hutchinson, however, takes West’s performance and proceeds to completely shit all over it; such is the utter pointlessness of his character, Loony Bin Jim. His accent, his delivery, his appearance, everything about this character screams ‘ooh look at me, aren’t I odd?’ in the worst possible way.

The supporting cast meanwhile, are an uninteresting assortment of varying degrees of competence ranging from the mediocre (Wayne Knight as intel/weapons man Micro) to the utterly forgettable (Julie Benz as, well, whoever she was).

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It isn’t all bad, however, as the action is suitably brutal, the Punisher’s opening salvo completely obliterates almost an entire crime family, cutting off heads and opening up some serious gun based whoop ass. It is worth noting that, coupled with Stevenson’s excellent performance, it is the action that saves the film from the bargain bin.

Unflinching brutality is pretty much all that is on offer here, highlights being two instances of the Punisher literally breaking someone’s face (both with his fist and, bizarrely, a chair leg), two metal implements being shoved lengthways through various body parts, lots of exploding heads, impalements and gunplay and, my favourite, a rocket to the face.

If all this sounds silly and pointless, well, it is. It’s a ridiculous film but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Safe to say there probably won’t be another one anytime soon, since the film has, so far, done even worse on DVD than it did at the box office, which itself was horrendously bad.

I, for one, would love to see more of Castle, and to be honest, would be all for Stevenson reprising the role. Just put a little more thought into the script (and the supporting cast) for next time, please….