“The Punisher” – 1989. Dir. Mark Goldblatt. With Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Jeroen Krabbe.
The first of “The Punisher” films came out in the wave of the first “Batman” film, it was made before it was hip to make them. This isn’t a great film, but it is a lot of fun. The opening credits show much homage to comics, and how they are laid out and designed. This is basically a revenge film where Frank Castle (Lundgren with an awesome jet black “die” job [get the pun?!]) is out to kill all the mobsters in New York, to avenge the car bombing intended for him that killed his family. Louis Gossett, Jr. plays Castle’s former partner, who is the only cop in America convinced Frank Castle is the infamous Punisher! The dialogue is campy, and a lot of the action and supporting characters are over the top. Jeroen Krabbe plays the Mafia kingpin who comes from overseas to salvage what’s left the “family”. Krabble gives a great performance as always. What I found so interesting about the film is there is a character named Lady Tanaka who is the boss of the American Yakuza. She’s a strong independent woman who strong arms the mafia and tries to take control of their operations. This character screamed O-Ren Ishii from the Kill Bill saga. I wondered if this character was a slight template for Tarantino’s character. Probably not, but it’s cool to think about. All in all this is a film worthy of attention from comic book fans and action film fans.
“The Punisher” – 2004. Dir. Jonathan Hensleigh. With Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, and Roy Scheider.
This is a film that I thought was going to be lame and trashy. It isn’t. The film has a similar set-up as the first, but with much more depth, more character development and much more talent. Thomas Jane plays Castle this time around, and his dye job is more acceptable and believable. The film centers on Castle’s retirement. His last case to wrap up before retires is posing as a Russian gun runner who is selling weapons to the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta). The gun deal goes wrong and ends with the death of Saint’s son. Castle thinking his life in undercover law enforcement is over, retreats to the gulf for a long overdue family reunion where the patriarch of the Castle family lives, played excellently by Roy Scheider. Scheider’s small role in the film adds to the backbone of Jane’s character; showing the hard bark that Old Man Castle displays gives credibility to Frank Castle’s blood lust. While on vacation, Saint’s right hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton) finds out the true identity of the Russian gun runner, and where he’s at. Saint orders Glass to lead a herd of baddies dressed in black to kill Castle – and his entire family – upon the request of his wife. John Travolta is surprisingly excellent; he gives his character a charming ruthlessness. Will Patton turns the best performance in the film. He gives the subtle and mystical performance of a very willing and capable man. Patton gives this character more depth than the character actually needs. Patton has always been one of my favorite character actors, turning up in small films and big films, always giving a solid performance. What makes this film work is the fact it isn’t overly stylized like most comic book films are. This film follows my Super Hero film template, of casting a relatively unknown or a star that isn’t as bankable, and bringing in “the heavy” with John Travolta and Roy Scheider. The cast isn’t packed with names (aside from what’s left of Travolta and Scheider’s), but all the performances are solid, leaving you wanting to watch it again.
“Punisher: War Zone” – 2008. Dir. Lexi Alexander. With Ray Stevenson, Julie Benz, Dominick West, and Wayne Knight.
This was a film that was supposed to continue the franchise with Thomas Jane playing Frank Castle. Jane left the project due to a disagreement with the studio over the route the character would take, along with the script and the new production team. This film captures the essence of comic book violence, much like “Sin City”. It’s very over the top and campy. A friend of mine is a gigantic comic book enthusiast, who was extremely excited about this version of The Punisher. This film is trite and lame, and you can’t help but feel the villain, Jigsaw (played by Dominick West) is the shitty cousin of The Joker from “The Dark Knight”. Stevenson can be good in limited roles where he’s not the lead, and in this film he’s mediocre at best. A lot of people were excited that a woman was directing this! It’s much like the press revolving around “The Hurt Locker”, a woman directing a war film. Who cares? Do you think Bigelow is appreciative of all the gender based talk around her directing the film (although she plays it well and loves the attention)? What a badass chick to direct a “Punisher” film! The bottom line is it wouldn’t have mattered who directed this film. It’s garbage.