Movie Of The Day: The Punisher (2004)

Blade, released in 1998, was the precursor of a movement X-Men confirmed in 2000: movies based on comic books are the next big thing. Sure, comic book movies have been continuously made for a long time, but never in such numbers and on such a high profile. The publishing company Marvel Comics can largely be credited for this, as while they’d been pretty careless with selling their movie rights in the past, they started to take more control in the mid-nineties, resulting in the first few films to come out of the trend, including the two previously mentioned. It’s been non-stop since then, with 2008 seeing at least seven films based on comic books released in the world. The Punisher is also based on a Marvel property, which had previously been brought to the screen in a fun 1989 B-movie starring Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier).

Frank Castle is an FBI agent undercover on an arms deal in Tampa, Florida. The deal is busted, and an unexpected participant is killed in the process: one of local mobster Howard Saint’s sons. Stricken by grief, Saint sends his men to kill Castle and his whole family in Puerto Rico, where they are having a reunion. Castle miraculously survives the massacre, if barely, and is nursed back to health by some witch doctor dude. Driven by rage, Frank Castle returns to Tampa, seeking to punish Howard Saint and his organization for the harm they have caused. He is now the Punisher.

The Punisher was the directing debut for action screenwriter extraordinaire Jonathan Hensleigh (Next), who co-wrote the flick with Michael France (Fantastic Four). It stars Thomas Jane (The Mist), John Travolta (Hairspray), Rebecca Romijn (the X-Men films), Ben Foster (30 Days Of Night), Roy Scheider (Jaws 1 & 2) in a small role, wrestler Kevin Nash (Dead Or Alive) and country singer Mark Collie (Fire Down Below) among others. Trailer and review after the jump.

April 2004 was a ripe month for revenge flicks, with Kill Bill Vol.2, The Punisher and Man On Fire all being released at almost the same time (Man On Fire arrived a week later). Which I guess sucks, because The Punisher was widely ignored in favour of Quentin Tarantino’s film, and barely made its budget back in theaters. Why does this suck? Simply because The Punisher is a damn great film, and my favorite of the three I mentioned.

Admittedly, though I knew of him before watching the film, I’ve never read a comic book featuring The Punisher, so I’m not overly-familiar with the character. Critics and moviegoers alike weren’t kind with the film, and many Punisher fans were disappointed, citing everything from its Florida location to the fact that it was an unintentional comedy as reasons for their dislike.

All right, so first of all, The Punisher isn’t an unintentional comedy. There’s plenty of humor to be found, sure, but it’s all intended to be there and I find it baffling some people can’t see that and take everything seriously. As for Florida being a bad, unrealistic setting, I know The Punisher operates in New York in the comics, but I feel on the contrary that it provided a perfect, contrasting backdrop to the dark story (hello, TV show Dexter anyone?). Also, I didn’t hear anyone complaining that Iron Man was set in LA instead of NYC when that movie came out earlier this year.

The Punisher is an action movie first and foremost, and I must say it certainly delivers. The action scenes are numerous, and wonderfully executed. They’re brutal, outrageous, and fun at the same time. But the rest of the movie isn’t an afterthought either. The story is a lot more inventive and clever than people give it credit for, and Jonathan Hensleigh crafts plenty of little, marvellous scenes that each stand on their own as memorable moments. The acting isn’t anything spectacular but it is nevertheless perfect for such a film, and the music by Italian composer Carlo Siliotto (The Ramen Girl) is simply superb (as is the song by Mark Collie).

Critics of the film seem to not realize that The Punisher didn’t have the budget of other comic book movies (which is one of the reasons Tampa was chosen over New York, by the way). At around 15 million dollars of shooting money, the film cost four times less than Blade Trinity and thirteen times less than Spider-Man 2, two other Marvel movies released the same year. Additionally, the filming lasted less than two months, an unusually short period of time for such a film. Keep in mind that Hensleigh never directed anything before in his life and you’ll be amazed at what he was able to accomplish.

Filled with inventive fight scenes, dark humor, over-the-topness and homages to previous action movies, The Punisher feels like a mixture between a comic book and a eighties action flick. Which, in my mind, is exactly how a Punisher movie should feel. Stop taking it so seriously. The extended cut of the movie, available on DVD, adds seventeen minutes back into the movie, including some more exposition and especially an entire subplot involving the Punisher’s ex-partner. While the theatrical version was already excellent, go with the extended cut as it only adds more to the story.

Despite its lukewarm reception in cinemas, The Punisher was a hit on DVD, and Lions Gate greenlighted a sequel. However, due to the time it took to put things on track, both Jonathan Hensleigh and Thomas Jane unfortunately left the project, despite having put considerable time and effort on it. The next film featuring the vigilante, Punisher: War Zone, instead stars Ray Stevenson (King Arthur) as the title character and was directed by Leni Alexander (Green Street Hooligans). It unsurprisingly doesn’t look nearly has good as its predecessor and will premiere in the US on December 5th.

Verdict: A freakin’ masterpiece of action cinema. The Punisher currently holds a 6.3/10 on IMDB and a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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