With Netflix’s The Punisher on the horizon, James Turner looks back at the previous live-action adaptations of the Punisher to see why they failed…
The Punisher (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 28%
Let’s get the worst of the bunch out of the way first.
Set five years after the murder of his family, Frank Castle, known to the public only as the Punisher, has made a name for himself killing criminals. 125 of them to be exact. And now he’s going to… just kill some more people, basically.
Part of what makes the Punisher such an interesting character in the comics is the fact that he so finely walks the line between being a hero and a villain. Though we often find ourselves rooting for Castle, we also recognise that his methods leave no room for criminal’s rehabilitation. He’s pretty damn effective and reducing crime, but he’s even more efficient and lowering the average life expectancy. And despite being a one man killing machine, he’s actually a reasonably nuanced character.
As alluded to in the opening paragraph, this nuance is nowhere to be found in the 1989 movie, which is really little more than an hour and a half of gunshot sound effects. The traits that made the Punisher such an interesting character, including his trademark skull, are missing, leaving nothing but a mindless, cheesy action film. And not even a good one at that. If you want to revisit any of the Punisher movies before Netflix’s new series arrives, don’t make it this one.
The Punisher (2004)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 29%
The Punisher (2004)’s first flaw was that it tried too hard to rewrite Castle’s origin story, and for no good reason. Rather than have his family killed at the hands of the Costa’s simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the film instead chooses to have a new villain, Howard Saint, kill them because Castle, an FBI operative, caused the death of his son Bobby.
So what’s the big deal? Sure, it was the Saints not the Costas, and sure the Castles were killed for a different reason, but at the end of the day, Frank’s family are dead and he wants justice. That’s all that matters, right? Right?
Wrong. By having Saint kill Frank’s family in an act of revenge, Frank’s subsequent dismantling of the Saint’s crime organisation is guided solely by vengeance. The Punisher of the comics kills the guilty because he believes he has a duty to clean up the streets; to punish those that the law does not. But in this adaptation, he simply kills the Saint family because they killed his family. He’s not the Punisher, he’s the Revenger. God that name sucks.
To be fair to the film, it’s not without its merits. Tom Jane puts on a good performance, though the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, and most of the action scenes are pretty cool, paying homage the action movies of the 70’s and even some westerns. But on the whole, the film comes across as little more than a generic revenge flick.
Is it worth watching? Sure. It’ll kill a couple of hours and it’s not totally dreadful. Just don’t expect to see anything more than a typical action film with a couple of comic book like moments thrown in here and there.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 27%
Unlike the first two Punisher movies, War Zone’s biggest flaw isn’t that it completely ignores the moral aspect of the character (though it does a good job of butchering it anyway). Instead, it is War Zone’s bizarre, sporadic, and inconsistent tone that led to its critical and commercial failure.
The film opens with a brutal, gore drenched scene, which is so over the top that you can’t help but laugh at it. The problem is, I don’t think the director intended the audience to laugh. The room is lit red for a good portion of the fight, the music is energetic, and there’s even a how-cool-is-that slow motion shot to add to what I assume was supposed to be an ‘epic’ action scene. Instead, the sheer amount of blood alone makes it look more like a parody of action films than an actual one.
To really highlight the film’s key flaw, I can do no better than quickly breaking down a scene that takes place about two-thirds of the way through it. So be warned, spoilers for a nearly ten-year-old film lay ahead.
Firstly, a little background. Early on in the film, Frank kills an undercover police officer after mistaking him for a criminal, and this causes him to rethink the whole vigilante justice thing. Later, he visits the cop’s widow and daughter in an attempt to apologise for his actions. From this, we get a very loose sense of the Punisher’s humanity and morality (see, I told you they didn’t ignore it altogether like in like the first two). Anyway, to the scene in question.
A couple of mobsters have kidnapped said widow and daughter and are holding them hostage in their home, along with a detective. A perfect narrative setup for a powerful, heroic scene where Frank swoops in and saves the day. Well, sort of. Frank does save the day, but not before blowing the face off one of the mobsters and literally punching through the other one’s head. Again, gore is so over the top that you can’t help but laugh. To top things off, the detective even comically shouts, “Goddamn it, Frank,” when he blows the guy’s face off. Actually, I take that back, to really top things off, Frank holds the little girl in his arms when he shoots the mobster, and barely even makes an attempt to shield her eyes from the scene. The morals have gone out of the window again, it seems. What a mess.
Should you watch it? Abso-fucking-lutely. As a film, War Zone totally blows. But as a balls to the wall, no holds barred, ludicrous piece of entertainment, it’s damn near perfect. Everything about it is just so wrong that it’s right. It still fails utterly as a Punisher movie, but it’s certainly an entertaining ninety minutes.