Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Tale of Three Punishers

The Punisher and all related characters (c) 2012 Marvel

Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher, is seen as one of the grittiest and most realistic characters in the Marvel Universe. He has no superpowers, only complete ruthlessness and a thirst for killing a lot of criminals. Preferably with a lot of guns. His suit is just a T-shirt with a skull on it. So, naturally, his best adventures are often like throwbacks to the action movies of 1980's, when the death of a man's family was a good enough motivation for a man to run a rampage of brutally executing hoardes of criminals, and the audience was still rooting for him. Of course, that's also why Punisher is the cheapest one of Marvel's flagship characters to be made as a film. Conseqentally, it's been tried three times. And whatever the reputation for these movies are, none of them are really that bad. But of course none of them are as good as they should be, either.

The Punisher (1989)
Director: Mark Goldblatt

First stop was this Dolph Lundgren vehicle (remember those?). The Punisher's origin isn't exactly original in terms of action movies (his family is murdered by criminals, he vows vengeance and delivers it one bullet at a time). As it is, that's the only thing on display similar to the character in the comics. That's why this film feels like it was concieved as just a general, run-off-the-mill action film, and then someone pointed out the arbitual similarities to Marvel's property. Since at that time comic movies weren't a hot topic, securing rights was just the icing on the cake. The end result is kind of bonkers, but never less than entertaining.

Lundgren's Castle hides in the sewers of NYC, and does quick strikes here and there to destroy the mob. His me-time is hilariously spent nude, praying for God for forgiveness. His former partner Jake Berkowicz (Louis Gossett, jr.) has taken it upon himself to capture Castle, presumably due to all the paperwork he has caused the cops to write. But they both may be over their heads, as the Japanese Yakuza starts to take hold of the criminal operations. They are as ruthless as Punisher himself, as they have kidnapped the children of the most notorious mob bosses in the city. They also want to get rid of the meddling Punisher. AND – THEY HAVE – NINJAS!

The kind of 80's stupidity that's on display here has often been imitated in modern action movies, but very rarely bettered. A fight scene between the Punisher and ninjas takes place at a childen's playground, so we get to see uzi-wielding deadly assassins run down a slide to their deaths in the line of Punisher's gun. Also, those ninjas seem to master the secret of teleportation, as witnessed towards the end when they always appear behind Lundgren and Gossett. Lundgren kills a whole lot of people, always with the same stone-face that makes it seem he's channeling The Terminator for his role. And it's a good thing too, because anything even resembling character development in this film is nothing short of ludicrous. Somehow, the biggest gripe comics fans have against this masterpiece is that The Punisher never once in the film wears his iconic skull T-shirt. That's a pretty slim argument.

Haters gonna hate.


The Punisher (2004)
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

Certainly the most despised of the Punisher films is the reboot that came at the top of the first wave of Marvel's flagship movies (circa 2000-2005). As the film's beginning is pretty much unbearable, I can see why so many tuned off from the film completely. But this is a rare case that a film picks up towards the end. The lesson here is that we really don't need to see the extended origins of every single comics character, as somethimes they are just jarring of what makes the characters work in the first place. This film is heavily in debt for the storyline Welcome Back, Frank by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, which is widely seen as the best and definitive story of the character. A more straight-forward adaptation would've worked wonders.

G-Man Frank Castle is involved in the cover operation where the son of the ruthless mob boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) is killed. Castle decides to retire, and with his family goes on a witness protection programme located in Hawaii. But the vengeance-thirsty Saint finds the Castles and orders a brutal hit on Frank's retirement party, killing just about every family member and friend he had, and leaving Frank himself to die. But, miracously, Frank survives, and starts to plan on taking Saint and his crime family out his own way, as it's been proven that the arm of the law can't reach it. He relocates in an apartement building, that also houses the young and eager Spacker Dave (Ben Forster), the overweight Mr. Bumpo (John Pinnette) and the timid Joan (Rebecca Romjin).

The caricatures of the comic book are toned down quite a lot. For instance, Mr. Bumpo isn't so morbidly obese any more that Frank could use him to suffocate a 7-feet tall musclebound assassin to death. But crucially, this makes it seem as if the filmmakers had been serious making this, which makes all the carnage all the more enjoyable. Much of the violence is as over-the-top, and suitably nasty. The biggest problems in the film lie the casting. Way too much time is wasted lingering on Travolta's villain, seemingly just because he's the biggest star of the film. Travolta doesn't do that bad a job (even though there are traces of both phoning it in and hamming it up), it's just that his character and what he does isn't terribly interesting. We're all in this t see the Punisher kill a bunch of criminals. Speaking of Punisher,  Thomas Jane in the lead. Like so aptly put in Arrested Development, he's the sort of actor that just wants to see his kids, not a mass-murdering sosiopath. Castle becomes a total asshole by the end, which is played as a tragical character developement, when in fact makes him at long last finally worth cheering for.

He at least has a skull T-shirt, but uses it in only, like, one or two scenes.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Director: Lexi Alexander

The second wave of Marvel films began with the premiere of Iron Man in 2008, and a reboot of the Punisher francise soon followed in its wake. Like characterized by other movies in this wave, this one disregards much of personal melodrama in favour of a more humorous, tongue-in-cheek style. As a result this is the best Punisher movie at a certain point of view, and the worst from another. This one certainly has the best and funniest action scenes, but otherwise I would lean on the latter stance.

After a successful hit at an entire mob family, The Punisher (Ray Stevenson) chases the last survivor, enforcer Billy Russoti (Dominic West) into a bottle plant. Billy falls into a glass crusher, which Punisher turns on to kill him. But as it turns out, it just jumbles up Billy's face, making him (of course) swear vengeance and adopt the new name Jigsaw! Meanwhile, the Punisher is suffering from confidence issues, as he realizes he also killed an undercover cop in his raid. But he tries to redeem himself by protecting the fed's family from the sinister plans of the crazed Jigsaw.

Alexander has a particular action style. The dark athmosphere is lighted with colourful lights, which makes the contrasts between the two dominant colours high and looks like a comic book panel. And the 80's-style action violence in the film is also great. The film opens up with such a great action scene, with the Punisher killing a whole room full of gangsters while swinging on a chandelier, that it's impossible for the rest of the film to match its inspired lunacy. Even the inspired scene here and there can't hold a candle to that opening scene. Alexander should've saved that for the last, instead of the underwhelming finale she had. Also, there is again way too much air in between scenes of carnage, and this time lingering on the villains is even more terrible. Jigsaw and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchingson) have such atrocious Noo Yawk Eetalyan accents, that's listening to the yabber with each other makes the viewer's own urge to kill them rising and rising, and reaching unacceptable levels of hatred towards them.

I've got the scowl. It's what the fans want, right?

Ray Stevenson's Frank Castle is at least the closest portrayal of the character so far. He doesn't have a skull T-shirt, but at least has a bullet proof vest on that has the skull. And he wears it througout the film. Stevenson just lacks some charisma to pull off being the lead, as a bit part player he works a lot better. The film also finally has Punisher's tech expert Microchip, played by Seinfeld's Newman, Jurassic Park's Dennis Nedry himself, Wayne Knight! As a voice of reason he is something essential that was lacking from the previous installments. Too bad Punisher still pouts too much of the time. Stevenson's not determined enough, as his Punisher is always flashing the possibility to quit his crusade against crime. Never! We demand more blood! We demand more Punisher films! With warts and all, they are still a lot more entertaining than a lot of the other bargain-bin superhero films.



  1. Lack of charisma? Well, duh! The Punisher isn't supposed to have charisma. You ask me, Stevenson's Punisher is the best one. It finally occurred to the director that someone who spends his life in a perpetual state of warfare is not going to look like a male model.

  2. And yeah..the second movie was the worst. Where's the action? Half the movie is spent brooding and hanging out with his apartment mates. Speaking of which, the mob sends TWO assassins to his apartment to kill him, and he STILL doesn't move? I mean, come on!

    Tricking the bad guy into killing his wife and best friend...what? THat's not how the Punisher works. The Punisher wants them dead, he shoots them himself. And sorry, Jane is way too pretty for this role. I much prefer Lundgren or Stevenson.



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