Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?
Released: 21 November 2006
Originally Released: 16 April 2004
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Budget: $33 million
Stars: Thomas Jane (also billed as “Tom Jane”), John Travolta, Will Patton, James Carpinello, Laura Harring, and Russell Andrews
Frank Castle (Jane), an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) and former Delta Force veteran, is left devastated and believed dead after crime boss Howard Saint (Travolta) orders the death of his entire family following Frank’s part in the death of his son, Bobby (Carpinello). Turning to alcohol and fuelled by rage, Frank embarks on a suicidal plan to destroy the Saint’s operation from within to punish them for their deeds.
While Marvel Comics has its fair share of bright-coloured do-gooders swinging or flying around and dispensing justice, they are also have their fair share of anti-heroes and one of their first, and most notorious, was the Punisher. As one of Marvel’s more “realistic” and low-key characters, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Punisher has seen his fair share of live-action adaptations over the years. While the first attempt at adapting the character was received rather poorly, by 2004 things had changed; superhero movies were now increasingly popular and profitable, with films like Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) and X-Men (Singer, 2000) paving the way for the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Development of a new Punisher movie can be traced back to 2000, when Marvel made a long-term agreement with Artisan Entertainment to adapt fifteen of their characters into films and TV shows, and writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh came onboard with the specific intention to draw inspiration from seminal Punisher writers like Garth Ennis and Dan Abnett. Thomas Jane was producer Avi Arad’s first and only choice for the role and, though not a comic book fan, Jane soon threw himself into meticulous physical and mental preparation for the role. Unfortunately, Hensleigh was not afforded the same budget as other superhero films at the time, meaning he was forced to excise certain scenes from the film, which was an unfortunate financial and critical failure. This stalled plans for a direct sequel and Jane left the role after waiting three years for news of the follow-up, only for a completely unrelated reboot to be produced soon after! Still, I feel The Punisher’s negative reception is unwarranted; it was an instant favourite of mine upon first viewing and I went out of my way to purchase this “Extended Cut”, which added an animated prologue and an additional subplot, both of which add a great deal to what is, in my opinion, already a pretty poignant and bad-ass film.
After a short but incredibly effective title sequence set to Carlo Siliotto’s fantastic Punisher theme, “The Skull”, which is like a dirge of military horns, The Punisher immediately sets the stage for its events by opening not in New York City like in the comic books, but in the gorgeously alluring city of Tampa Bay, Florida. While I’m sure some purists lamented this choice at the time, I actually always really enjoyed it; it’s nice to see comic book movies mix the locations up a bit so that they’re not all set in the same damn high-rise cities and the film ends with Frank clearly heading off the New York to continue his work so it’s pretty clear to me that the intention was always to get to the big city in a follow-up movie.
As far as I am aware, Howard Saint has no basis in the source material but, for me, he’s an extremely effective antagonist in this interpretation of the Punisher. While I’m not a fan of John Travolta, he makes for a captivating and enigmatic villain; exuding confidence and authority, Howard clearly believes himself to be the most powerful man in the room and he lords his position as a money launderer and high-ranking mobster. Sharply dressed and living in luxury, it’s implied that he has worked his way up the ladder of success from nothing and he is clearly living his best life with expensive suits, jewellery, opulence, and accessories. In many way, even his wife, Livia (Harring), is another trophy to hang from his arm and he has kept himself in power by being both extremely reliable and extremely protective about his business, personal life, and family. Howard’s empire is vast and wealthy thanks to him funnelling Mike (Eduardo Yáñez and Joe Toro’s (Omar Avila) misbegotten funds through his legitimate business, such as his incredibly successful club, Saints & Sinners (whose unfortunately garish-looking sign looks like it was whipped up using WordArt). In an effort to impress his father with his business acumen and proactivity, Howard’s son, Bobby, agrees to finance an arms deal with the Saint’s lackey, Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison), only for it to be part of an undercover bust in which Frank has been posing as Mickey’s contact. Frank’s assumed identity is killed in the ensuing conflict, thereby protecting him and his family from reprisals, but, unfortunately, Bobby is also killed by an errant shot, which greatly disappoints Frank as he was hoping for a bloodless end to the operation.
Frank, a former Marine, is heralded by his friends and colleagues as the “finest undercover op” in the F.B.I. However, as capable as he is and as legendary as his reputation is, Frank has grown weary of his time in conflict and around death and, with the conclusion of this particular bust, is planning on moving himself and his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis), and son Will (Marcus Johns) to London so he can take a much safer desk job and never have to worry about his identity or their safety being compromised. Unfortunately for Frank, Bobby’s death comes back to haunt him as both Howard and Livia are heartbroken to the point of fury; although Howard spares Mickey’s life, despite his part in Bobby’s death, he actively uses every resource at his disposal to learn Frank’s identity and, upon learning that Frank and his entire family are at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Livia demands that the entire Castle line is executed as recompense. Accordingly, although Frank and his father, Frank Castle Sr. (the excellent Roy Scheider in one of his last roles) try to hold off Saint’s hitmen with their weapon proficiency, Frank is forced to watch every single member of his family be gunned down in cold blood. Maria and Will try to escape and are run down and killed, leaving Frank wounded and completely at the mercy of Bobby’s twin brother, John (also Carpinello), and Howard’s right-hand man, Quentin Glass (Patton), who beat him, shoot him, and leave him to die in an explosion.
While the Saints toast their victory, Frank somehow survives this onslaught; after being nursed back to health by a local medicine man, he returns to the scene of the massacre to acquire his father’s guns and a shirt baring a gruesome skull visage gifted to him by his son the day that he died and, with a grim glare and a stoic utterance (“God’s gonna sit this one out”), vows to have his revenge. He moves into a dilapidated apartment block and begins busying himself sprucing and armouring up an American muscle car, boobytrapping his apartment, cleaning and preparing his guns and drinking himself into a stupor with glass after glass of whiskey. Haunted by his family’s murder and suffering the weight of survivor’s guilt, something flips in Frank’s head and he enters into a cold-blooded, merciless vendetta not just to kill the Saints but to punish them. Although he doesn’t take the name “The Punisher” until the final moments of the film, Frank looks very much the part; unlike Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane spends the majority of the film decked out in his iconic skull-branded shirt and sporting a bad-ass leather trench coat and looks like Tim Bradstreet’s impressive artwork come to life. Add to that his physical stature and stern commitment to the role and you have probably one of the best, if not the best, portrayals of the character ever put to film and it still annoys me that Jane never got the chance to feature in a second feature-length Punisher film.
While in the building, he attracts the interest and attention of his neighbours: Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Nathaniel Bumpo (John Pinette). While Dave and Bumpo basically act as the film’s comic relief (which they both perform admirably through great use of comedic timing, line delivery, and physical performance), Joan feels a great swell of pity and attraction towards Frank, especially after they learn about what happened to his family. Having suffered from a number of abusive relationships and alcohol problems, she is naturally attracted towards damaged people and has formed a kind of oddball surrogate family with Dave and Bumpo. Nevertheless, she attempts to reach what little remains of Frank’s humanity; seeing that he is on a self-destructive, potentially suicidal path, she stresses the importance of clinging on to good memories rather than letting the bad or dark ones tear him apart. While Frank is initially dismissive of his neighbours, he cannot in good conscience ignore their plight when they’re in danger and is mortified when Dave is tortured and mutilated by Quentin simply to hide Frank from Saint’s men. In that moment, Frank realises that there is life after tragedy and is touched by their loyalty to him, a veritable stranger, and thus gifts them with the Saint’s ill-begotten gains when he moves on at the end of the film out of his appreciation for their affection.
Those who have seen the original theatrical cut of The Punisher will immediately notice the differences made to this extended version of the film as the opening is proceeded by an animated prologue that details Frank and Jimmy Weeks’ (Andrews) time as soldiers in Kuwait. While the original version of the film works without this and does allude to Frank’s time as a solider, it only adds to the emotional depth and complexity of the character to see some of the horrors he witnessed in combat. Specifically, we see how Frank openly defied his commanding officer, who wanted to execute some terrorist prisoners, and watched him die when one of the captives pulled a grenade for a suicide blast. This brief animated sequence also does a great job not only of showing that Frank was a veritable one-man army even back in those days but also of lending just a little more depth to Frank and Jimmy’s relationship as we see how Frank saved Jimmy’s life by single-handedly taking out a group of snipers and how Jimmy saved him, in turn, from an RPG attack.
Also added to the film is a new sequence at the start where we see that John tries, unsuccessfully, to talk Bobby out of going along with Mickey’s arms deal, and a scene in the Toro’s casino where they detail some of their past and history with Howard and help him to get leverage on Jimmy by fixing the odds against him. Indeed, Jimmy benefits the most from the Extended Cut by virtue of a number of his excised scenes being restored to the film; this shows how Jimmy has a known and destructive gambling habit and makes it explicitly clear that Howard Saint was able to get the lead on Frank’s name and location by capitalising on Jimmy’s vices. Jimmy is understandably disturbed when Frank returns from the “dead” not just because his old friend turns out to be alive, as in the original cut, but also because he knows that he will eventually fall into Frank’s crosshairs. Indeed, while Frank is too preoccupied with his vendetta against the Saint’s to really socialise with Jimmy all that much, he immediately becomes suspicious of Jimmy’s involvement in his family’s murder when he notices that his friend has traded away his fancy new car and is missing the watch Frank gifted him after Kuwait. As a result, we get an extremely tense, volatile, and heart-wrenching confrontation between the two where Frank gives his old friend and comrade the chance to end his life by his own hand rather than be “punished”.
For such a small, low budget film, The Punisher certainly packs a lot into its run time. I said when reviewed The Punisher (Goldblatt, 1989) that, compared to many colourful superheroes, the Punisher is probably one of the easiest to adapt as you simply give a decent actor a gun and a grim visage and do an eighties-style action film. This version of The Punisher, though, both escalates the stakes involved (killing Frank’s entire family rather than “just” his wife and kid/s) and really runs with the implications of Frank’s pseudonym: he’s not just clinically punishing the guilty by murdering them indiscriminately, he’s literally punishing the three people most directly responsible for his family’s murder by turning them against each other and destroying Howard’s operation from the inside out. He does this by coercing Mickey into divulging the Saint’s entire schedule (which is, admittedly conveniently, very predictable and routine), which allows him to make it seem as Livia and Quentin are having an affair and thus manipulates Howard into murdering his wife and his best friend.
Of course, that’s not to say that The Punisher doesn’t have its fair share of fight fights and action/fighting scenes. The slaughter of the Castle’s is basically a prolonged execution full of big explosions, squibs, and guns going off all over the place that reminds me very much of a tamer version of the sort of gratuitous violence seen in RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987). When Frank infiltrates Howard’s bank to disrupt his money laundering activities, the film takes on aspects of a traditional Western, with tense, prolonged shots of Frank and his adversaries getting ready to draw and shoot, and Frank’s final assault on Saints & Sinners sees him take on an entire room full of goons and mobsters with a variety of firearms while decked out in skull-stained body armour.
Of course, there are two standout action sequences in The Punisher. Driven to frustration by Frank’s disruptive actions, Howard grows increasingly desperate to track down and stamp out the Punisher; to do this, he hires a couple of hitmen to do the job for him, both of whom unsuccessfully attempt put a stop to Frank’s vendetta. The first of these is Harry Heck (Mark Collie), a Memphis hitman who moonlights as a musician. After trying, fruitlessly, to intimidate Frank (who, by this point, as adopted a permanent “thousand-yard stare”) with a chilling song, Heck runs Frank off the road (sadly totally the proto-Battle Van before it really gets a chance to do anything, which may have been a budgetary thing) and taunts him while holding him at gunpoint only to wind up with a ballistic knife in his throat! Next, Howard brings in the Russian (Kevin Nash), a mute giant who is superhumanly strong and seemingly impervious to pain. This fight, which is almost an exact adaptation of a fight between the two from the 2001 “Welcome Back, Frank” (Ennis, et al) arc, is mostly played for laughs thanks to Bumpo’s opera playing over it and is much more comical compared to the otherwise gritty and grim tone of the film. Still, it’s incredibly enjoyable to see the Russian absolute decimate Frank and a great showcase of Frank’s tenacity, endurance, and adaptability as, although stabbed and brutalised from the assault, he continually finds new ways to try and hurt the behemoth before finally charging him on the stairs and breaking the giant’s neck.
Still, a central aspect of the film is Frank’s emotional detachment and grim commitment to enacting his revenge. To pull off his complex plan, he feigns torturing Mickey and specifically targets Livia and Quintin; by following them and compiling a list of their habits, routines, and dirty little secrets, he’s easily able to predict where they’ll be and how best to turn Howard against them. Once he has manipulated Howard into giving in to his jealousy, rage, and the enraged monster dwelling just beneath his façade of respectability, Frank launches a direct assault against the remnants of Howard’s empire. Having lived his entire life by a strict code of honour and within the bounds of a lawfully just system, Frank sees his newfound vigilantism not as a simple matter of revenge but rather as a necessary action to ensure that those who do evil are punished for their misdeeds. As a result, he shows no mercy to John, whom he leaves helpless and holding an anti-personnel mine, and takes absolutely no pleasure in revealing what he has done to Howard. With Howard grovelling and bleeding at his feet, Frank nonchalantly ties him to a car and has him driven into a massive (and, sadly, poorly rendered) series of explosions to finally put an end to those who wronged him. With his mission complete, Frank prepares to end his own life but, at the last minute, stops when recalling a “good memory” of Maria. Although this scene is a bit confusing in the way it’s shot, the intention is made explicit with Frank’s closing narration: realising that there are more scumbags out there who need to be punished, he vows to wage war against them all as “The Punisher” until the day he dies.
While I’ve always been a fan of the Punisher, I have to admit that I haven’t really read many of his comics so my experience of him as a character is a bit limited compared to guys like Spider-Man and Batman. Still, I love the concept of the Punisher as this merciless, unrelenting force that is fully committed to killing as many criminals and low-lifes as he can until he inevitably dies; it’s an incredibly simple, incredibly bleak, and incredibly realistic concept that I feel Marvel Comics really need to try and put a bit more effort into pushing a bit harder as a stark contrast to other, more colourful and law-abiding superheroes. When I first watched The Punisher, I was immediately impressed by just how raw and emotional the film was; it wasn’t just another superhero film or even a bombastic action movie like its predecessor. It was a heart-breaking examination of a man who has literally lost everything, been driven to the very brink of death, and come back with only one thought in mind: punishment. You could substitute the word “vengeance” or “punishment” there if you like but it doesn’t change the fact that The Punisher, to me, perfectly captures the uncompromising and gritty spirit of the source material and presents it in a fresh, new way by setting the film in Tampa rather than the traditional New York City.
As I said, I’m not a Travolta fan but he really impressed me in this film; exuding power and total authority one moment and then descending into a maniacal rage the next, he gave a performance just shy of scenery chewing and was a perfect foil. The film is, honestly, full of great performances from some really talented actors; Will Patton was fantastic as the subdued, sadistic Quentin Glass, Rebecca Romjin and Samantha Mathis did a great job as the film’s emotional anchors, even the guys playing the Toro brothers and guys like Mark Collie and Kevin Nash were clearly having a great time on set. Of course, the real star of the show is the lead actor as Thomas Jane remains probably my favourite actor to portray the Punisher; not only does he look just like the comic book character, he has exactly the right level of physicality and acting ability to really own the role. It is, as I’ve said, a simple character in many ways but it does require a great deal of emotional range to properly portray the gamut of Frank’s turmoil and Jane did a spectacular job as this grim, haunted avenger who will stop at nothing to punish those responsible for his pain and The Punisher, especially this Extended Cut, remains probably my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to get an idea of what the character is all about.
What did you think to the Extended Cut of The Punisher? Did you prefer to the theatrical version and how do you think it works as an adaptation of the character? What did you think to Thomas Jane’s performance in the film? Did you like the changes the film made to the source material or do you think it maybe changed a little too much? What did you think to the film’s action scenes and soundtrack? Did you enjoy the slapstick nature of the fight between the Punisher and the Russian or do you think it kind of went against the otherwise grim tone of the film? Which live-action portrayal of the Punisher is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out for my review of the videogame tie-in to this film.