“Maybe I am going to hell. I sent many deserving criminal souls to their doom. I have no regrets. They’ll be waiting for me. When I arrive, they’ll wish they’d sent me to heaven.” The Punisher
As Promised the Live Action Punisher countdown continues. Yesterday I covered number 4 (The last on the list) today I am here with number 3. Now this one may surprise you a bit as it’s the most successful Punisher film to date. I am talking about the 2004 Thomas Jane film. Most people rank this at the top so it may come as a surprise that I have it so low. There’s a reason for that, its called little to no action and to much of a story change.
First off lets get this out of the way. Thomas Jane was amazing as the Punisher. He looked the part, sounded the part, had the outfit perfect, he was top notch all the way and I was beyond mad when he did not continue the role. John Travolta played the big bad, a gangster named Howard Saint. The story is supposedly based off of two Punisher books. Year One, and Welcome Home Frank. I have read both of these. I see no resemblance other than a few characters and one random fight scene. Year One, which in my opinion is a very overrated story shows what happens to Frank Castle immediately after his family is murdered in Central Park. I’m telling you this so you can make your own comparisons. Frank is left for dead as well but regains his pulse when being zipped up in a body bag. He goes nuts, gets sedated and sent to the hospital. The mob wants him rubbed out as he is a witness. He kills the two hit men that come after him and with the help of a washed up drunk reporter finds out who was responsible for the hit. He spray paints his now iconic skull on a shirt, grabs some guns, kills everyone and decides to start a one man war on crime calling himself the Punisher.
The second is Welcome Back Frank. Written by my personal favorite Punisher writer Garth Ennis. First problem I have is that the art by Steve Dillon was comical at best and to me took a lot away from the overall story. That aside it focus on The Punisher going after a mob family in New York named the Gnuccis. He sets up in an apartment and even though he doesn’t want to, becomes friends with his three neighbors, Joan, Bumpo, and Dave. The Punisher goes after the Crime Family, killing Ma Gnuccis kids and eventually throwing her to a polar bear at the New York City Zoo. Don’t worry the bear only eats her arms and legs. She gets mad so she calls a big Russian hitman to stop him but after a battle in Franks Apartment he manages to kill the Russian, eventually taking out the Gnucci family once and for all.
Now these seem like two good stories to base a film off of. Too bad they really did not. First off the film does not take place in New York, which is bad as that’s when Frank Castles family was murdered. No this film takes place in, and for that matter was shot in sunny Florida. Now in the directors defense shooting in New York is expensive and as this was made before Marvel became the juggernaut it is today it had a budget of only 33 million. The location is a big strike as the Punisher is gritty, it had no business being set in Florida. Second the director had to make a lot of changes to the Welcome Back Frank story as it would not only be expensive to film, it would have been one long film. So he decided to keep the apartment setting with the three friends and the fight with the Russian. The Russian fight was good, but giving the Punisher 3 housemates was just pointless. It was pointless in the comics as well. There is no point in every trying to give the Punisher friends. Jonathan Hensleigh, the director wanted the film to have an opening in Kuwait showing how Frank was a soldier. I have no issue with that being changed from the Vietnam origins in the comics, as you have to keep the character at the correct age in this timeline. But as the budget was low that scene was nixed. It does exist as a storyboard in the DVD release however. Oh yeah, the origin was completely changed as well. To flashback for a second Punisher is a war vet, comes home from a tour of duty takes his family to Central Park for a picnic, a mob hit happens, and his family is murdered. He survives and starts killing criminals calling himself the Punisher. Now keep all of this in mind as I describe the film.
Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated a smuggling operation run by Bobby Saint. Things go slightly bad and Saint is killed. Now this was Franks last job as he is set to retire. Problem is Bobby Saint was the son of Florida Mob Boss Howard Saint (John Travolta in a bad wig) Saint bribes on of Franks co-workers and finds out where he is and orders his men to kill Frank and his family. His whole family. See Frank and his wife head out for a giant family reunion. All the cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone, from her side and his side of the family. It’s a huge gathering, I’m talking like second cousins twice removed big. Now just before they all gather Franks son buys him a shirt with a white skull on it. I think he said a guy told him the skull offers protection or something stupid like that. Anyway they have their big party when Saints men show up and murder everyone but Frank. Don’t worry, he’s left for dead, he just survives thanks to a friendly fisherman who nurses him back to health.
As the cops cant prove Saint is behind this Frank decides to show up and let everyone know he’s alive thus ruining the element of surprise. He moves into an apartment, actually more like a big abandoned house that he ends up sharing with Joan, Bumpo, and Dave. He decides to get his revenge on Howard Saint the only way the Punisher can, by taking pictures and planning things. He does wear his skull shirt along with a trench coat, so the look is perfect. He goes to Saints office, holds a few guards and gunpoint and has his money dumped in the street. Keep in mind, everyone knows he’s alive, he committed a crime, yet is never arrested. He also starts doing surveillance on Saints right hand man Quintin Glass. Turns out Glass is homosexual so Frank uses that info to blackmail him so he can take Saints wife earrings and plant them in Glass’s car convincing Saint they are having an affair. Before Saint finds this out however he sends a singing hitman to kill Frank. Frank stabs him in the neck after a very uneventful car chase. By uneventful I mean like 45 seconds long. Then Saint send in The Russian, played by Kevin Nash. Frank ends up killing him in a comic fight that does resemble the comic book battle. Saint eventually finds the earrings and kills his wife, and Glass thinking they are having an affair. Its then, after nearly 100 minutes that Frank puts on his shirt, grabs some guns and kills a handful of people at Saint’s club, eventually letting him know he was behind the trickery and then blows him up. He leaves a bunch of cash for his apartment buddies and drives off telling the audience via voice over he is now the Punisher.
Now I can overlook that they made Frank Castle an FBI agent. I can overlook he was in Iraq as opposed to Vietnam. I can overlook The Gnucci family was replaced with a mobster named Howard Saint, I can even overlook that it takes place in Florida. I cant however overlook it has little to no action in it. As I said Jane is fantastic. In terms of look he is the right choice for the Punisher. Travolta is great as Howard Saint. A bit campy and over the top, but good none the less. Kevin Nash is great as the Russian, in fact he’s almost unrecognizable. The late John Pinette, Rebecca Romijn, and Ben Foster are all outstanding as Franks “friends” and roommates of sorts. In fact the entire cast is outstanding, with great chemistry for all involved. But the action is just not there. Now don’t get me wrong I hate the fact it was not a simple killing in Central Park. But they wanted to go all out with having an entire family massacre. Sure its cinematic, but the actual origin is much simpler. But as it’s the movies they felt this packed more of a punch. And the were trying to make a point that the Punisher doesn’t just kill, he punishes, and plans, and stalks his prey. True to some point, but overall not really. Sure he does surveillance, and has a plan, but once that’s done he usually kills tons and tons of people. That never happens.
In this you get a family massacre scene. A scene where Frank punches a guy picking on Dave. A fight with the Russian. Him shooting two guys at Saint office. Stabbing a singing hitman. Yes I forgot to mention the Hitman introduces himself to Frank before singing to him. And at the very end he blows up some stuff and shoots a few people. If I were to time out all the action I would say its close to 20min tops. And half of that is the fight scene with Kevin Nash. For a film slightly over 2 hours that’s not much. For a Punisher films that’s nothing at all. Now I rank Warzone last, and that film does have more action so you may be wondering why tis is above it. Well its pretty much because of Thomas Jane. As I said he was amazing. He looked, sounded, acted, the part to perfection. Plus he wore a shirt and not a dumb neck vest. He plays the grieving family man turned Punisher flawlessly. He is dressed the part, the right size, he’s essentially the comic character come to life. He just has nothing to do
The story is good even with all the liberties taken and as film adaptations go was definitely the best look and best acted. Its just missing the one thing a punisher film needs, violence. Now I know it sounds like I hate the film but I don’t. I like it I just cant rank it the top of the list. I prefer it over Warzone for acting and budget reasons, but overall it plays very slow. They had the right guy, just not the right script.
So there you have my number 3 choice for the Punisher Live Action works. Stay tuned tomorrow for number 2!