Marvel Movie Madness! Part 17: The Punisher (2004)

Does this second outing fare better?

by | June 16, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 15: The Punisher (2004, 29% @ 167 reviews)

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn Stamos, Roy Scheider

Tim: Look, I know the Punisher is a vigilante driven to vengeance after the brutal slaying of his wife, child, parents, and extended family. I get it. But this is a seriously unpleasant movie. There are a few inherent problems with this material when you’re putting it on the screen, namely that the over-the-top brutality that makes the comics queasily compelling just seems cruel here. The extended sequence in which evil plutocrat Frank Saint’s thugs kill every member of Castle’s family, then chase his wife and child to a pier and drive over them, then brutally beat Castle, shoot him several times, and dump gasoline everywhere to finish the job, is so vicious and sadistic — and fetishized — that it ceases to be entertainment and starts to be simply gratuitous. And unlike poor Bruce Wayne, who made it his life’s work to fight crime after the cold-hearted killing of his parents, Frank Castle’s quest for vengeance is so single-minded that, in the words of Roger Ebert, “he makes the Charles Bronson character in the movie Death Wish look relatively cheerful and well-adjusted.” We’re supposed to root for this guy?

Frank Castle does the following things in The Punisher: he tortures a guy. He gay-blackmails another. He plants evidence that he knows will likely lead to the deaths of several people. He shoots, cleaves, stabs, and incinerates scores more, all the while causing property damage that could easily kill countless innocent bystanders. And he’s the hero! At a certain point, I was simply incredulous; shouldn’t the central character be even a teensy bit sympathetic, or at least empathetic? Are we supposed to feel for Frank Castle, to root him on? Is he Beatrix Kiddo, or is he Travis Bickle?

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Alex: This is just one long endurance test, like Funny Games or the Last House House on the Left remake. How long can you withstand a movie that throws up one despicable thing after another on screen? The attempts to humanize the Punisher are just wrong, wrong, wrong: He’s a propulsive force but inherently not a likable character. I don’t need an explanation for why the Punisher exists because there is no moral justification at all for anything he does. That’s the dark beauty of this character. To try to make him anything close to good guy rings false every time.

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Jeff: There isn’t a single moment of The Punisher that isn’t offensive to someone — be they mobsters, Puerto Ricans, cops, comic book fans, film buffs, or simply decent people of Earth. I know I said some mean things about the Dolph Lundgren Punisher, but at least it had moments where it was entertaining in spite of itself. The 2004 Punisher is just grueling.

And why is it so hard to make a decent Punisher movie? Our community members (especially King Crunk and Justin D.) made some excellent points about the ways in which the character’s comics incarnation is too essentially unlikable to root for on the screen, but I think this is one case where the right filmmaker could make it work without remaining 100 percent faithful to the books. I mean, at heart, his tale is just a good old-fashioned revenge story taken to a particularly depraved conclusion, and Hollywood’s done that plenty of times. So why did Jonathan Hensleigh get it so wildly, willfully wrong?

This is The Outlaw Josey Wales by way of Steven Seagal’s Hard to Kill — a brainless orgy of unbelievably stupid characters, contemptible acts, and unfunny gags that lingers gleefully over its violence without making the viewer feel the stakes in any meaningful way. Thomas Jane does what he can, I guess, but he’s powerless to ground a movie that Hensleigh was seemingly determined to send hurtling off the rails at high velocity. I could feel things going wobbly when the Punisher moved in next door to Abbott and Costello (yes, I know they’re Spacker Dave and Bumpo, and they’re characters from the comics — they still don’t work here). By the time the Russian was throwing Frank through walls to the strains of “La donna è mobile” while Bumpo did his best impression of the chef from Ernest Goes to Camp, I gave up completely.

Hensleigh seemed to think The Punisher was half comedy, but this character’s violence should never be played for laughs. He’s lived a violent life, and that legacy has destroyed his family and trapped him in a downward spiral — and even though he knows it’ll never be enough to fix the problem, he keeps piling on the violence because it’s all he knows how to do. There are some interesting ideas in there (David Cronenberg proved it with A History of Violence), but nobody involved with The Punisher bothered to explore them.


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