The Punisher 20 Years Later: Looking Back at 2004’s Messy Origin Movie

The Punisher is one of those comic book movies that came out in what some call a dark period for the genre, after Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000), but before we were “rescued” by Batman Begins (2005) and the start of the MCU with Iron Man (2008). These types of films were still going through a growth period, as studios attempted to work with new budgets and expanding technologies while looking for what would sell, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some gems in there, or at least a movie or two that was worth watching. As a huge fan of the Punisher comics, that’s what I’ve always taken from this 2004 attempt: a new approach to the character that took some of the best ideas of the time from the source material and tried to realize them in live-action. Not everyone agreed, but twenty years later I still feel the same: Thomas Jane’s outing as the character is a pleasant mess with some edge, an awkward growth period.

Most of us know the plot and don’t necessarily need to see his origin again, but The Punisher is a dark tale of revenge about a man who just didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to die with his family. This time, however, Frank Castle is an FBI agent on his last undercover gig when the son of a powerful crime lord is killed. It has always sat a bit odd with me that Castle gets all of the blame for this incident when he was on the ground pretending to be dead as it happened. Why not go after the people who actually shot your kid? I suppose the villains don’t always have to be logical or show that level of sense if we want the plot to move forward. Howard Saint is upset about his underdeveloped offspring’s demise, and the mother is even more vengeful, claiming that Frank’s entire family needs to suffer for it. Instead of the typical story where it’s only the wife and kid who get mowed down, the villains wipe out the majority of his bloodline. I’m sure there is that one uncle who is elated he couldn’t get off work for that reunion. Now, after almost dying with his loved ones, Castle is reborn, healed, and ready to make his assailants pay, but he isn’t just going to kill them in cold blood. This is personal.

“Go with God.” “God’s going to sit this one out.”

Personally, I enjoy Thomas Jane as Frank Castle because he picked up on the attitude and massaged that into something that fit the script he was given to work with. He turned the role down at first, refusing the offer a couple of times, but director Jonathan Hensleigh and producer Avi Arad were determined he was the right choice and he was also swayed by seeing the art of Tim Bradstreet for the character. Those pieces are excellent. Jane put a lot of effort into the gig, gaining almost twenty pounds of muscle and training with Navy SEALs, which shows, and he also took his licks during filming, receiving several minor injuries. He plays Punisher quiet, intense, and passionate in his dedication. Jane may not physically be exactly what’s expected from the character, but there are several scenes where he carries himself like it.

Howard Saint is a different story, as he isn’t the best villain, and many were probably hoping for someone a bit better to help ‘create’ the vigilante. John Travolta seems to be coasting in some scenes, but there are moments where his viciousness shines through. He was never a huge threat to Castle himself, but a sign of the evil men could do and how power and money could be a huge opposition. Saint is more of a threat to his own people than to Frank, but he also makes for a solid mob-adjacent foe who has grown too powerful and overstepped his boundaries. Travolta is serviceable for the role, but I can’t imagine that there weren’t better choices for the actor and writing here.

There are many other minor characters and recognizable actors here, I’ve always been partial to Will Patton as Quentin Glass, Kevin Nash as The Russian, and although brief, it never hurts to see Roy Scheider. Frank’s family doesn’t stick around long, but they are there along with the various members of the criminal organization, and Castle makes a few new friends. Some people don’t like this aspect of the story, but I think it helps add to his characterization, seeing how he treats those who aren’t criminals, who are even willing to be tortured for him (that’s why he leaves them that money). Though, seeing as Joan Rebecca Romijn) and Dave (Ben Foster) are both former X-Men – Mystique and Angel – I’m surprised they didn’t help out a bit more.

The script is interesting, to say the least. It takes from “Welcome Back Frank” and “The Punisher: Year One,” both great stories, and many elements from them can be seen in this adaptation. The original draft had to be re-written multiple times, however, at one point it involved a version of the Battle Van, Microchip, and even Jigsaw, but the director felt those inclusions complicated things. Then came the budget problems, as Hensleigh only received just over half of the money he asked for. This meant that several large scenes had to be cut, some parts of the plot had to be revamped, and the action was cut down slightly. The film was set in Florida instead of Punisher’s usual hunting grounds of New York, as the studio was convinced they would get more bang for their buck using Tampa as a location, even if the weather was a problem. Some also believe that Travolta was part of the reason this happened as well, living in the state at the time and wanting to fly his personal plane to wherever they were shooting. I don’t mind the locale shift, but it does feel odd at first.

The other big problem is the tonal shifts in the movie, but part of that seems to come from earlier versions of the script being changed so much. Some of the darker and serious parts were replaced by attempts at odd character moments, dark humor, and comic book aesthetics, with a few of the reviled decisions coming straight from the comic but not translating well (yes, the popsicle scene). Worse to me still is the flaming-car skull calling card. We just saw The Rock pull that one off better with his Wrestlemania XL entrance, and I still find Castle’s attempt at it to be overdramatic and pointless (unless someone was set up to take aerial photos).  

Some people find the fire hydrant to be worse, but how Frank deals with the Saints before his final assault is one of my favorite parts of the writing. Castle could have just killed them all off one by one, slowly, risked them going to ground, but he also wanted to make the people who killed his family suffer. He disrupted their money, messed up their work relationships, and then had Howard Saint brutally kill his best friend and wife (too bad he followed those murders up with puns), just around the time the movie almost makes us feel for them. This is a man with a military mindset who is calculated, he breaks people down, ruins them, makes them turn on each other, and in the end, he takes everything from them, even driving off in Harry Heck’s car. Frank doesn’t just kill Saint, but ties him to the car and sends his enemy into a sea of explosions, a torturous coffin of fire that barely makes up for what he did.

I love that he doesn’t even seem happy with that. Frank Castle is dead, that’s what we hear multiple times in the film, even from him. This is an origin story about him finding out who the Punisher is. In the end, he isn’t satisfied and almost kills himself, having done what he sat out to accomplish, thinking there is nothing else before he realizes that there’s more work out there for the person he has just become. Sure, the kid giving him the shirt was cheesy, but now the symbol has a stronger connection, and it means something to him and will come to be feared by his enemies.

At two hours and four minutes, it’s hard not to think that the beginning is a little slow, but I like what they’re building. The Castle family massacre stuck with me for a while, even though he does this odd little shuffle at the end when approaching the bodies of his dead wife and child. It’s an homage to the same scene in the first Mad Max film and it made the steady burn up to his revenge feel right. In the meantime, we saw Harry Heck and that fight with The Russian, played by Kevin Nash, who was legitimately stabbed by the butterfly knife due to a prop mishap, but everyone bought him beers afterward for pushing through. That fight was strangely set to some opera, but remains entertaining, while there were other savage executions, like the knife through the chin kill. A few of the more gruesome moments had to be re-edited, like the end of the fight with The Russian and the paper cutter scene, all to appease the MPAA, who wasn’t happy with the level of violence.

The movie didn’t do too well in theaters, probably because it was a rated R comic book adaptation and someone decided to release it against Kill Bill: Vol 2. However, it would make money on DVD and receive an extended cut, adding almost 17 minutes back in, which features a scene from the original script that had to be cut due to the budget, here in an animated form. It also reinserts the sub-plot with Frank’s partner, Jimmy Weeks (Russell Andrews), which adds more weight to the story and helps a couple of his decisions make sense. The soundtrack also sold some people on the film, with tracks like “Broken” and “In Time” making a splash.

Seeing that shot at the end with Frank on the bridge, doing his narration, left me wanting more and still does. We almost got that in the form of a direct sequel that would have featured Jane’s Punisher going up against Jigsaw, with Rob Zombie attached to direct at one point, but that never happened, everyone abandoned the project, and the blame was put on Lionsgate. Instead, this project became the rebooted Punisher: War Zone, which is its own beast.

As someone who liked what Jane did with Frank Castle, I’m glad he went on to voice the character in the 2005 The Punisher video game and reprised his role in the short film, The Punisher: Dirty Laundry. This movie is a strange melting pot, one that I would have loved to see the original vision of, but what fans received was such an interesting mix that never goes too dark and is just violent enough to not be for everyone. It’s an origin story that tries to explore the character and entertain with action, coming so close to the target, but just missing the headshot.


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