After the 1989 version of The Punisher failed to gain any traction with audiences, there’d be a 15-year gap between onscreen incarnations of Frank Castle. Like the Australian-American co-production of 1989 with editor turned director Mark Goldblatt at the helm, 2004’s The Punisher was helmed by someone with minimal directing experience. As a screenwriter, Jonathan Hensleigh worked on Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon, Jumanji, and The Saint. Much in the manner that the ’89 Punisher had action sequences so poorly constructed that one might question if there was anything resembling an editor on the crew, let alone one directing, 2004’s Punisher is so sloppily written that it seem like it was just slapped together, little to suggest that this was constructed by a professional writer.
As we know well by now, Frank Castle was an ex-special forces member whose family was brutally murdered by mobsters. Considered dead, Castle takes on the persona of the Punisher, inflicting violent vengeance against criminals. The Punisher is basically the comic book incarnation of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films, only with an extra helping of lethal education.
Of all the Punisher films, 2004’s Punisher is by far the weakest of the bunch. One of the main reasons the film doesn’t work is that it has an extended origin story. After an undercover sting where he pretends to be a Euro-trash arms dealer results in the death of crimelord Howard Saint’s son, Frank Castle (Tom Jane) is targeted by the mob. During a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint (John Travolta) sends his goons to slaughter Castle’s family. His wife, child, father, and poor Uncle Harry and Aunt Janet are murdered before his very eyes. Left for dead, kind of, Castle awakens on the beach, finds the shirt his now dead son gave him, and begins his quest for vengeance. Except he really doesn’t. Castle customizes his car, reluctantly makes friends with his neighbors, and proceeds to plan out a meticulously researched type of vengeance.
Before we get into how The Punisher short changes vengeance, removing any grey area, let me discuss my two main gripes with the film. The first being when Castle is undercover. The police arrive and surround Castle and the bad guys he’s trying to ensnare. All of the bad guys are standing there, hands up, when Castle, playing a part, points his gun at the cops. The cops have blanks, I guess, and Castle is equipped with squibs. This elaborate ruse has negative consequences when the once-surrendered bad guys raise their arms towards the cops, resulting in a massacre. For no other reason than to make people think that he’s dead, Castle and company stage a violent scenario that actually turns violent. Outside of the police in Ferguson, any law enforcement official would tell you that such a ruse is not only dangerous, but incredibly stupid. On the gripe number two, Castle knows that Saint is insanely jealous when it comes to his wife. So Castle takes a lot of time framing Saint’s chief goon to make it look like they’re having an affair. After killing his goon and preparing to murder his wife, Saint is told that his goon was gay so the affair was impossible. The film lacks the kind of nuance where details actually matter, where they’re nothing more than plot contrivances. If the Punisher’s plans had met some kind of resistance it would introduce something called tension.
The film lacks tension but it also lacks the nuance necessary in films about vengeance. Castle’s quest for vengeance is all but assured, there’s nothing in the film to doubt the righteousness of his wrath. As a whole, the film lacks any real resistance for Castle’s schemes and it doesn’t want to look at the morality behind revenge. Castle’s family are never presented as anything more than props, their sacrifice necessary for the plot. The same is true of Castle’s neighbors. They exist to briefly humanize Castle before being threatened themselves, thus justifying Castle’s quest for blood. Shockingly, only one of the neighbors was wounded and not killed in order to reinforce Castle’s righteousness, or simply raise the stakes.
It’s not enough that the Punisher himself is rather boring, the villains of the film are boilerplate material, too. Travolta is never maniacal or unhinged. He’s provided more interesting performances in worse movies, Killing Season and Battlefield Earth come to mind. Then the supporting villains are colorful yet hollow. There’s Harry Heck (Mark Collie), a Johnny Cash rip-off who serenades the Punisher before attempting to kill him. He is introduced as quickly as he’s dispatched. The same could be said of the Russian (Kevin Nash), a bulky man who has an extended knockdown, drag out fight with Castle in the apartment building. Either of these side-villains could’ve had some kind of impact other than a quick visceral rush. Lacking characteristics, they’re not even characters, merely a disposable garnish.
Despite glimpses of competent direction for a first-timer, briefly invoking the spirit of Sergio Leone in a few scenes, the film’s heavy-handed reliance on a straight line narrative drowns any sense of adventure or surprise. It’s a bland, meandering work that avoids being violent enough to shock, or being plot driven enough to keep us involved. Hensleigh has continued writing, though he’s only directed one other feature, 2011’s Kill the Irishman. Once one of the rising stars en route to leading man status, Tom Jane’s star has fallen considerably. Some of it is bad luck, others just being miscast, but Jane has never reached the highs that some assumed he was destined. Though another Punisher film was made with someone else as the title character, Jane reprised the role in a recent short film, The Punisher: Dirty Laundry. While the short was rife with brutality, it seemed to be a kind of throwback to ‘70s racial panic, vigilantism, and the worst of the Death Wish worldview. But 2004’s The Punisher doesn’t have a repellant worldview or questionable racial politics. It doesn’t have the depth of thought to really have much to say about anything. It’s just a bad movie, one that punishes the audience.