This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I chose the 2004 film “The Punisher.”
The Movie: “The Punisher” (2004)
Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Plot Summary: (From Netflix) “When an FBI agent’s wife and child are murdered after witnessing a mob hit, he becomes ‘The Punisher’ — a one-man judge, jury and executioner.”
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 29 percent
Froemming: After sitting through “Rock Star” last week (and Mark Walberg’s insufferable Boston accent), this week I decided to pick an action movie that is also a comic book movie with a hard R rating. I had just seen “The Punisher” for the first time last summer, and was not entirely thrilled with it (it could also be because I watched it on Crackle, which was all glitchy and had commercials in it). My mind is a little changed, but before we get into that, how has “The Punisher” sat with you, Brown?
Brown: Well, I’ve always leaned more toward Marvel characters instead of DC Comics, so when I was a teenager, I didn’t watch “Batman Begins,” which is when that franchise went more realistic with Christopher Nolan. Instead, the first “dark” comic book movie I watched was “The Punisher.” And I loved it. Now that I’ve expanded my comic-book movie watching, maybe it’s not as good as I remember, but there’s still plenty that I enjoy immensely about this film.
Froemming: For me, I really had to look at this from a pre-and-post-Nolan Batman viewpoint. He made it OK for comic films to be entirely dark. Which, with the exception of “Blade,” no other comic adaptation had really done that. And for such a brutal and unforgiving character such as the Punisher, I think this film may have worked better if it was made after “Dark Knight.”
But I did enjoy it more this second viewing than I did the first time.
Brown: This version of “The Punisher” (and not the late 80s Dolph Lundgren “Punisher”) came around the same time as the Sam Rami “Spider-Man” movies which were a huge box-office hit but were approaching Joel Schmacher levels of campiness. This could have been darker, like “Blade,” but I think this was as close as they’d get in 2004.
But enough exposition, let’s break down this bad boy.
Froemming: So we have Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) working as an undercover FBI agent, and during his last job, one of the people killed during a shootout happened to be the son of Howard Saint (played by John Travolta and his goofy wig). Saint’s wife demands that Castle and his whole family die in retribution for the death of her idiot son.
Brown: A couple things about this opening. First, it’s a bunch of FBI agents who have brokered this illegal arms deal. I’m not a law expert, but that really seems like entrapment.
Froemming: To quote Wayne Jarvis from “Arrested Development:” Patriot Act. Read it, Brown.
Brown: Next, Frank is disguised as the leader of this deal and he’s playing a German, because if popular culture has taught us anything it’s that the Germans are always the villains. Then, this deal is taking place at the docks, and all I could think of is Nordberg from “Naked Gun.”
As for Travolta and his wig, you should really watch Travolta play Robert Shapiro in “The People vs. OJ Simpson” to get weirded out by his hair and face.
Froemming: My question during this shootout was how with all these bullets flying, did Castle not really get hit? I mean, they fake his death and all, but that just baffled the hell out of me. Anyway, so they fake the death, the Saints want revenge and Castle and his whole family conveniently are in Puerto Rico to be set up for slaughter.
Brown: They’re in Puerto Rico because that’s where the families are having a family reunion, and Frank gets his cliched retirement from the force. And having all the family members are there for the slaughter as the hit is executed by Howard Saint’s army.
Froemming: I wrote in my notes that it was pretty easy for Saint to get an FBI agent’s file. There is actually a deleted story arc (my boss Matt Cory pointed this out to me) where a buddy of Castle’s is in deep gambling debt to the Saints, and they basically force him to hand over the information that leads to the death of Castle’s whole family. And Castle doesn’t kill him, he hands him a gun and tells him to do the right thing, and the guy kills himself.
That would have been great to include, but films can’t be three hours long, so I get it.
Brown: Well, what we get is a pretty good beachside action sequence as Frank’s wife and kids are trying to escape execution, driving through hordes of killers before reaching a dead end at a pier. There, some henchmen finish off the wife and kid by hitting them with a truck (nevermind that when Frank finds them, they are not just caked in blood from being hit at full speed by a moving vehicle). And, Frank finally runs out of bullets and seems to be finished off after being shot in the chest and set to burn on the pier (which reminds me of the cold open of “Skyfall).
Froemming: Rule No. 1 villains, always make sure the guy you are sent to kill is actually dead. Rookie mistake right there. I also want to say I loved the casting of Roy Scheider as Frank’s dad. He was pretty awesome in that role.
Brown: At about the 23-minute mark of the film, I paused like a giddy fanboy because I thought one of the assassins was Dolph Lundgren. Turns out, I was wrong. But man, wouldn’t that have been the perfect cameo…
Froemming: That would have been amazing. That whole scene was pretty intense. And knowing what happens to Castle’s wife and kid from the comics sure didn’t make it less chilling to see that on film.
Brown: My question is what the hell happened to Frank after the assassination attempt? We fast-forward for an indeterminate amount of time and Castle has a “Cast Away” beard and has healed from all of his wounds. But, he’s using a makeshift crutch to walk and looks like he’s been starving. Do they not have hospitals in Puerto Rico? I’m sure former FBI agents can get good medical treatment.
Froemming: Well, the “witch doctor” patched him up and took care of him for some time. Man, that beard looked like cat hair glued to his face.
Brown: With his wounds healed, his revenge mission realized and with his skull shirt in hand (which his son bought in town… does Puerto Rico have a Hot Topic?), Frank returns from the dead. And I really love this sequence where he tears the tombstone out of the ground and plants it on the golf course where Howard Saint is playing.
Now, how did he know Saint would be golfing there? Because he tortures Mick, the cliched low-level henchman who knows way too much about the enterprise. The torture is good for a laugh and I think it’s genius considering, you know, we’re right by “Spider-Man” and going “Hostel” on someone would be a tad dark.
Froemming: I really enjoyed that torture scene, and it worked with the character. That is how you make elements of a dark character a little lighter. What they shouldn’t have done was include the cast of a wacky 90s sitcom as Castle’s neighbors. That was truly what took me out of this film, those damn neighbors.
Brown: What bummed me out was having Rebecca Romijn as one of the neighbors but not using her in her role as Mystique in the “X-Men” movies. We could have gotten a Marvel crossover before “The Avengers.” Alas, the fanboy in me was a little disappointed.
Froemming: Yeah, I’m not even sure they could have even done that, since Marvel’s properties are still spread around in different studios, thus a lot of the confusion with the two Marvel Cinematic Universes (X-Men and Avengers are separate). But it looks like Disney has The Punisher now, because he is in season two of “Daredevil.”
Anyway, we have Frank tormenting the Saints by sabotaging all of the money they launder, whether throwing it out windows or setting fire to it. So he is beginning to get under the skin of Travolta’s wig.
Brown: If you’re indulge me, I have a theory.
See, in this movie, Travolta is screaming at everyone and giving an over-the-top performance as this crime boss. And not just in his illegal dealings, but in the way he is psychotic over his wife and him kissing his dead son multiple times at the morgue.
So this is my conjecture: We are not watching John Travolta. We are watching Nic Cage. They never switched faces after “Face-Off.” This is a Cage-esque acting performance.
Froemming: That makes too much sense. I love it.
Brown: To help push this ahead, I want to talk about the flamboyant assassin the Saints send after Frank at the diner, who is like a mix of Conway Twitty and Trent Reznor. This assassin’s name is Harry Heck, which is the laziest pro wrestler name since WCW tag team High Voltage’s Robbie Rage and Kenny Kaos.
Froemming: I loved the Harry Heck scene. It was so out of left-field that it made me wish he was in the film more. The Saints also have a crony, Quentin Glass, who Castle sets up for a long con in tricking Howard Saint into thinking Glass and his wife are having an affair. Which was another arc I really enjoyed in this film.
Brown: Will Patton plays Quentin Glass in this movie, and Patton always seems to be perfectly typecast as this kind of character. He works very well, although he was the one who was supposed to kill Frank Castle in the first place, so maybe he’s not the greatest at his job.
Froemming: Again, rule No. 1, always make sure the guy you are supposed to kill is actually dead.
Brown: No, that’s rule No. 2, according to “Zombieland.”
Froemming: But I enjoyed Glass’ character. And again, this whole long con of the parking ticket, the cell phone calls, being spotted at the same hotel, this was just a cool way to get Saint to become even more paranoid and go off the rails.
Brown: One more quick aside before we reach the climax. In another fanboy moment for me, Howard Saint sends one more assassin to try and off Frank by sending The Russian, because pro wrestling has taught all of us that foreigners are evil.
And while we’re on the topic of pro wrestlers, The Russian is played by former WWF/WCW world champion Kevin Nash, who was also Super Shredder in the second “Ninja Turtles” movie.
Froemming: The Russian scene was dynamite. Just a bats**t insane fight scene, where the Russian throws Castle around like a ragdoll. It got a little too “comic-y” at times, but it was fun.
Brown: And I suppose for you, it was a great way to break up the awkward neighbor dinner scene that they had to try and force to get a romantic subplot going with Frank and Joan (Romijn).
Froemming: Again, those neighbors were not needed in this film. It was just not a good fit, and of course they name the fat guy Bumpo, because why give him a real name.
Brown: Yeah, that was really shoehorned. Even when Dave is getting tortured by Quentin, who’s trying to find out where Castle is, by having Dave’s facial piercing removed with pliers… I just didn’t care. Yes, this is a motley crew of outcasts but that unsuccessfully had me build sympathy for those neighbors, no matter how many times they had to play Seether’s “Broken” to tug at your heartstrings.
Froemming: That all aside, we now get to the end. Which, while a little clumsy at times, I thought worked and showed how ruthless Frank Castle can really be.
Brown: I gotta disagree with it being clumsy. They show Frank’s revenge two different ways. While breaking into the building where Howard Saint is at, Frank is throwing everything he has at them, with explosives, guns and even a bow and arrow so he could look like Hawkeye from “The Avengers” except, you know, cool.
Then, you see his jealousy long con finally pay off as Howard stabs Quentin to death for thinking Quentin was sleeping with his wife (we find out earlier in the movie that Quentin is a homosexual and is being blackmailed by Frank). Then, in his jealous rage, Howard throws his wife off a bridge and watches her get hit by an oncoming train. How she didn’t have the sense to run off the tracks was baffling since she had time to recover from the fall, but I digress.
Froemming: Frank’s plan works though, he has destroyed Saint’s life. And to add insult to injury, he drags the bastard behind a car (he is controlling via remote control) to a fiery, painful death. Though the cars burning in the lot, and a lot of this scene, was a very obvious steal from “The Crow.”
Brown: After finally disposing of the Saints, Frank is off to become the vigilante he was always meant to be. As a newspaper man, I enjoyed him telling Joan that to keep up with him, check the papers. When she asks what section: “Obituaries.” I really feel like Thomas Jane should have been more of an action star after this movie, but life is strange.
Then, Frank drives to a bridge and gives his distant stare as we set up for a sequel that never happened. Which is a shame because Thomas Jane was an awesome Punisher. It could have worked. Heck, the short film he made in the Frank Castle role in 2012 was an awesome 10-minute watch.
Froemming: I don’t think there is much more to add to this, so I think it is time for suggestions.
Would You Recommend?:
Froemming: Sure. It is a fun action flick. I can see why fanboys and fangirls of the comics had their issues with it, but it is a solid action film. And to be honest, comic fans usually hate anything that isn’t 100 percent loyal to the source material, which makes them unbearable people sometimes. I, too, am baffled why Jane never became an action star after this. He played the role well, and was a very loud supporting voice for a sequel. Too bad that never worked out.
Brown: Yes. There’s a bit I can nitpick here after finally watching some of the darker comic book movies that have come out since then, but this movie is still awesome. It works as a popcorn movie with a lot of guns, explosions and not a lot of plot that takes away from those things. For a film about a psychopath avenging his dead family, it’s a lot of fun. Again, Thomas Jane should have gotten a lot more traction with this character. If you want a movie that’s more true to the actual Punisher comics, go find “Punisher: War Zone.”
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