The Kinda-Sorta Best Punisher Movie

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Action Movies, comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

Well, the missus-to-be is on a family vacation this week, which means it’s up to me to amuse myself. So I did what any bored, temporarily single American male comics geek might do:

I watched all three Punisher movies again.

Part of my recent re-acquaintance with the Punisher stems from my and the internet’s collective hand-wringing over the absurd levels of violence that can be found in the new crop of DC comics, and how dammit, we should not be allowing young children to see such violence in what should be escapist superhero fare!

Except I am also keenly aware that when I was 10, I was reading every Punisher comic my mom didn’t know I’d gotten my hands on. It was the late 80’s and I was a comic book newbie, and yet I knew one thing: The Punisher was cool.

(Now, the obvious reason: If you see a dozen guys get killed in increasingly novel ways in a book where the lead character is a murdering vigilante, that’s one thing, but if you’re reading a Batman comic where the Joker’s getting his face cut off, that’s quite another.)

Anyway, no matter. I had a weekend on my own, the Punisher was on my mind, torrents are on my computer, and YouTube can helpfully provide me with the not-yet-on-DVD 1989 Dolph Lundgren adaptation.

To determine which could reasonably be considered the “best” of the three (this being a relative term), I have granted each a score based on several IRREFUTABLE METRICS, and I think you’ll be surprised which one actually wins.

In that I was kind of surprised.

Let’s look at the flaws and how each movie handles them:

The Origin

How it should be: Frank Castle is a former marine who becomes the criminal-killing Punisher after his wife, son and daughter are senselessly caught in a Central Park gangland crossfire.

How 1989 did it: Frank Castle is an NYPD cop whose wife and two daughters are killed in a carbomb as retaliation by the mob. This is told in brief flashbacks and awkward dream sequences. +1

How 2004 did it: Frank Castle is a former marine turned FBI agent whose wife, son, and vacationing extended family (on both sides!) are massacred in the Carribbean while on vacation, by a gangster (kinda) seeking vengeance for Castle’s part in his son’s death. This takes nearly a third of the movie to play out. -1

How 2008 did it: Frank Castle is a former marine who becomes the criminal-killing Punisher after his wife, son and daughter are senselessly caught in a gangland crossfire. This is relayed by one detective to another in exposition that takes about a minute. +2

Advantage: Punisher War Zone

The Plot
How it should be: The Punisher spends his time killing the shit out of criminals, while the criminals either come up with ever-more-extreme methods of taking out the Punisher, or else they’re dealing with their own problems.

1989: The Punisher’s been killing bad guys for years, but when the Yakuza comes to town and strongarms the mobs in a powergrab by also kidnapping all their kids, the mob turns to the Punisher to help get the kids back. +2

2004: In retaliation of Howard Saint’s retaliation, Frank Castle sets up a machiavellian scheme to make ruin Saint’s business and make him grow paranoid of his wife and best friend’s relationship, while Saint keeps sending killers to take out Frank. -1

2008: The Punisher murders the shit out of an entire crime family, but leaves one alive, physically scarred, and absolutely bugnuts. Jigsaw splits his time between getting revenge on the widow of an undercover agent and attempting to murder the Punisher, while the Punisher mopes around because he accidentally killed an undercover agent (which would NEVER HAPPEN, but we’ll get to that). +1

Advantage: Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher

Where The Punisher Lives and How He Gets About
How It Should Be: A nondescript warehouse in New Jersey, far from prying eyes, where he can park his absurdly-equipped Battle-Van.

1989: The NYC sewers, with tunnels that allow easy motorcycle access. +0

2004: A flophouse where he has a nice setup to work on his GTO, but also shares with three idiots (see below). +1

2008: NYC subway tunnels, where he…walks from. Seriously, Frank has no mode of transportation in this movie, it’s weird. -1

Advantage: Well, that GTO is pretty bad-ass. 2004 scores this one.

The Sidekicks the Movie Has Deemed Necessary to Humanize the Character

How it should be done: Minimally. Nobody’s going to humanize the Punisher – that’s just stupid. And he’s not a guy who needs a sounding board, so really these guys are just there to pad out the run-time.

1989: The Punisher has an informant, a drunken actor with a ridiculous habit of speaking in rhyme. He’s annoying, but generally helpful. +1
2004: Oh brother. We get tone-deaf variations on the tenants who shared space with Frank during Garth Ennis’s first Punisher story – obese, jolly Mr. Bumpo, piercing fetishist Spacker Dave, and mousy shut-in Joan. Except now they’re all representative of fringe-dwellers who are heroic because they’re Trying, Dammit, and hope to spread their hopefulness to their grim neighbor. -3 (one for each)

2008: Frank’s weaponeer, Microchip, provides weapons, dry comic relief, someone Frank can exchange terse dialogue with, and that’s that. Also some gangbanger-turned-backup who gets like three lines. +2

Advantage: Punisher War Zone!

How Overwritten Is This Thing?
How It Should Be: Honestly, this should never be a dialogue-heavy OR plot-heavy movie. Punisher kills bad guys, bad guys try to retaliate, great big shootout at the end, done.

1989: Pretty straight-forward, but the side-plot with Lou Gossett Jr. as Frank’s old partner who Just Wants His Friend Back can be entirely cut and nothing changes, really. +2

2004: It is a full hour into the movie before Frank does anything really Punisher-esque. And then he goes about concocting these stupid little schemes to make Saint think his wife’s cheating on him, which…that’s not The Punisher. That’s SOMEONE, but that’s not The Punisher. -1

2008: IMDb tells me that the studio couldn’t decide whether to go full-on comic book absurdity or cop-drama realistic, and so they just split the difference, which is why the dead undercover cop’s wife, kid, and partner get waaaay too much screen-time (despite, again, the fact that the Punisher does a shitload of reconnaissance and would know about the undercover guy). 0 (+1 for the Jigsaw plot, -1 for the undercover cop subplot)

Advantage: Dolph!

Do Kids Like The Punisher?
How It Should Be: Jesus, you let KIDS into a Punisher movie?!
1989: All those mobsters’ kids seem to look up to him – even the one who watches Frank kill his dad, and then is threatened to become a better man than his dad, otherwise Frank will probably end up killing him. +0 (Because he THREATENED A CHILD, IS WHY)
2004: No kids – though again, Bumpo and Dave seem borderline retarded at times. +1
Slain undercover guy’s daughter gives Frank a couple of cute, silent waves, which Frank awkwardly returns. -1
Advantage: Tough one. I’ll throw 2004 the bone, but…there is something kind of awesome about Dolph Lundgren not-at-all subtly threatening a kid with death if he becomes a mobster.

Do Cops Like the Punisher?
How It Should Be: Kept to a minimum, though I always liked the implication that most of the cops are happy to let Frank keep making their jobs easier.

1989: We are kept way too abreast of Lou Gossett Jr.’s investigation. And his feelings. -1

2004: Frank lectures the cops when they try to sympathize with him, but that’s about it. +0

2008: The generally-approving cops have a half-assed “Punisher Task Force” that’s made up of one fuck-up cop who’s actually helping Frank. Also okay. +1

Advantage: Giving this one to Punisher War Zone

OK, so they’re going to mention God. Which is least painful?
How It Should Be: It shouldn’t. Seriously, don’t – oh boy, they’re going to anyway.

1989: Ponderous voiceovers about if God’s watching, apparently co-written by Lundgren. -1
2004: “God? God’s gonna sit this one out.” +1 (Overused line, but Jane’s craggy voice makes it work.)
2008: There’s a three-minute subplot where Frank confronts his Catholic background. It’s awful. -2

Advantage: Huh. 2004.

How It Should Be: High. I realize it could be tough to crack 100 in an ideally 90-minute movie, but…high.

1989: According to IMDb, 91. +1

2004: IMDb says 45. -1

2008: 81. +0

Advantage: Dolph!

Who’s Got The Best Villain?

How It Should Be: Just the WORST GUY. Some kind of bizarre quirk is helpful.

1989: The head mobster’s a real shit-bag, but the Yakuza lady (and let’s be clear here: this isn’t so much the Yakuza muscling in – it’s the damned Foot Clan) is goddamn awesome. +2
2004:  Howard Saint is ridiculous. One of the major flaws of this movie is that Frank spends so much time toying with Saint, but the guy’s just so easy to mess with – seriously, every little thing throws him into a tizzy – that you wonder how much satisfaction he can really be getting with this. -1

2008: They had the right idea with Jigsaw, but somewhere between Dominic West’s ludicrous Noo Yawk accent and his even-crazier brother (seriously? “Loony Bin Jim”? C’mon, guys.), it actually overdoes it. +0 (Jigsaw might’ve gotten a point, but LBJ got it taken away.)

Advantage: 1989!

Best Kills
How It Should Be Done: A lot, and creatively.
1989: …There really aren’t any great kills, come to think of it. -1

2004: Frank forces Saint’s other son to hold an isometric landmine in his outstretched hand…and we hear a scream and then a “pop” after he leaves the building. +1
2008: Frank launches a rocket at a parkour guy while he’s in mid-leap; Frank punches a guy’s face in; Frank…okay, look: +2

Advantage: 2008. If this movie does nothing else well, it at least gives the Punisher some really good kills.

So Who’s The Best Frank?

How It Should Be: Terse, glowering, practically emotionless, except you should get the idea that the only joy he really gets out of life is killing criminals.

1989: Oh no. This Frank does not feel joy. Also, Dolph Lundgren can’t act. He looks kinda sleepy most of the time. -1

2004: Once he finally gets going, in the last act, you do get the sense that murdering bad people is the only thing that’s going to keep him alive. And Tom Jane sure does have the right voice for it. +1

2008: Every time Frank kills a guy in front of someone else, he has this, casual “What? What did I do?” expression that’s pretty great.  +1
Advantage: I am giving it a tie between Jane and Stephenson, because they both did their best with what they had.

Freestyle points!
How It Should Be: Every good Punisher comic has a moment of ridiculous awesomeness that you can’t help but enjoy.

1989: The Punisher blows up a mobster’s house while still inside it, strolls up to the front door so all the reporters can see him, then right back into the house as it explodes some more. He is perfectly fine in the next scene. Also, he THREATENS A CHILD. +0 (These two instances could also be in Unforgivable Acts – see below – so we’re calling it a wash.)

2004: Adapting Chuck Dixon’s torture scene from Punisher: War Zone, where Frank strings a guy up and threatens him with a blowtorch to the back, while using a popsicle and a raw steak to scare him. +1

2008: Frank gets his nose broken early on, and irritably sniffs for a while, until he finds a pencil, jams it up a nostril and resets it like that’s just a normal thing to do. +1

Advantage: I always liked that “Smell that, Mickey? I’m burning off some of your fat!” So, 2004.

Unforgivable Acts

How It Should Be: It should not, but here we are.

1989: Nothing horribly objectionable on its own, unless Frank’s apparent fireproofedness and child-threatening are a problem for you. +0

2004: After his family’s massacre, Frank is nursed back to health by a mysterious witchdoctor who lives on an island. -2 because that’s the dumbest thing to add to an already overstuffed rendition of the origin.

2008: Loony-Bin Jim. This character isn’t just awful, he’s redundant. Jigsaw is crazy enough without a crazier, pun-spewing (“Let me AX you a question!”) martial artist brother (that it’s Doug Hutchinson makes him retroactively creepier). -1
Advantage: Wow, 1989 by default.

Closing Arguments

1989:Dolph Lundgren can’t act, there’s no skull on his shirt, and the whole thing (despite IMDb

Coming Spring 2015: Because WHY THE HELL NOT.

telling me it was made for $9 million) looks like it cost about $50 and a long weekend. But damned if that whole “The mobsters think they’ve got it all covered until the Yakuza shows them what ‘Scary Gangster’ REALLY means, and then suddenly Frank looks like a good alternative” is almost exactly the right plot for a Punisher movie. FINAL SCORE: +4

2004: I get that in theory, showing every part of the Punisher’s development from loving family man to vengeance-fueled killing machine is a good idea. But from the start, it’s all wrong. The Punisher shouldn’t be created by something Frank did – it’s the randomness of it all that makes him snap in the first place – and he shouldn’t be pulling silly little schemes to fuck with his enemies’ minds. He should be KILLING THEM DEAD. The last 20 minutes are the only part of the movie that feels like a Punisher movie, and that’s not nearly enough. FINAL SCORE: -3 (ouch)

2008: Ray Stephenson capably embodies the barely-verbal, toweringly intimidating Frank, the kills are all there and the movie often finds a good tone in its cartoonish ultra-violence. But shoe-horning in the plot of the slain undercover cop and his family just slows the thing down to a crawl. There’s about 40 minutes of good movie in this 100-minute package. FINAL SCORE: +4 (go figure)

Well, can’t argue with the data.

(Seriously, don’t argue with the data. It’s not actually “data.”)

What’s funny is that while both 1989 and 2008 are both wildly problematic (1989 for having a bad actor and no budget; 2008 for amping up both the self-seriousness AND the crazy comic-bookiness to untenable levels), they still mostly match what should go into a Punisher movie.

2004’s Punisher, meanwhile – and this is something I don’t think I even noticed at the time – is almost wholly unrecognizable as the character. It’s the wrong origin, it’s the wrong background, it’s the wrong MO, the wrong tone…it’s a good actor stuck in something he clearly didn’t expect to be in when he signed up to star in The Punisher.

Though this whole problem could be solved if someone on the internet would simply do a mashup of all three movies that starts with the quickie PWZ origin, then opening credits, then Punisher fights the mob and ninjas (PWZ and P89) before heading down to Florida where he relaxes by mentally screwing with John Travolta.

And it would be over and done with in under 90 minutes. (With a combined 217 kills, give or take!)

Get on it, YouTubers.

  1. Moff says:

    It’s a shame that Hollywood is so beholden to the blockbuster format, and that comic-book movies in particular must automatically fall into that category, because there is a way to make a great Punisher movie; it’s just got to be closer to, say, Death Wish than The Matrix or something. Special effects are important, but tone is way more so.

  2. lowkey says:

    (Seriously, don’t argue with the data. It’s not actually “data.”) is my new get-out-of-jail card. “Look, I’m an academic, but seriously.”

    Also… I wish I could routinely write this well, this humorously, this prodigiously.

  3. Aaron says:

    Check out the newest edition of “How Did This Get Made” –

    They interview the director who is completely hilarious and acknowledges the extreme violence with a fairly compelling explanation.

  4. John Jackson says:

    Oh the podcast, nice. I haven’t heard that yet, but I did see a Director’s Q&A screening of War Zone on Tuesday. It was great. I can’t say I know enough about the Punisher, so the ‘killing undercover cop’ plot didn’t push my suspension of disbelief. I was frankly amazed at Benz’s, Stevenson’s and Colin Salmon’s ability to make something that mediocre with a script that atrocious. Also, the parkour guy speaks in a wonderfully horribly over the top Irish accent. LBJ gets a pass from me, if only for the scene where he shows his brotherly love by destroying all the mirrors…with his face. And finally, the atrociousness of the seminary exchange is balanced by the campyness of “Sometime I’d like to get my hands on God.” line. Oh, and the last shot of the film does a better religious discourse than any other part of the film. But I’m probably a bit biased, as the director was open, friendly and fun.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    I definitely will check out that podcast, since I appreciate Patton Oswalt’s enthusiasm for the “Am I actually seeing this?” style of filmmaking.

    (Just not right now, I’m in a hotel room and have like 5 more minutes of interne

  6. Moff says:

    Your wife is on vacation and you’re in a hotel room?


  7. Jeff Holland says:

    Hey man, she was on a lovely family vacation in Aruba, which I totally would’ve gone to, if not for my occupational obligation to go to a conference and listen to grantwriters being angry about how nobody gets any grants anymore!

    We’re both home now. She’s ridiculously tan, and I’m generally despondent over the state of the nonprofit sector. I think she won this round.

  8. […] hair Blade II. But I just noticed that it has, essentially, the same plot as the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, except where Frank and his mortal enemy go up a skyscraper to fight Yakuza super-mobsters, Blade […]

  9. Shlitz says:

    1989 Version is way better then the rest man

  10. uly killingsworth says:

    1989 punisher is the best of the three! At least you got one thing right, 2004 punisher is one of the worst movies i have ever seen!1989 punisher have great kills, what are you talking about? what about how he catches those guys by the throat with the rope and hangs them? coming out of ventilation shaft a couple times, stealth kill! you’re forgetting one thing, not having good acting skills is always a plus as a action movie actor! hence the movies, rambo, rocky, commando, predator 1, crank, cyborg, double impack, and so on. these guys have no acting skills, but make great ACTION movies. so if you dont have great acting skills and cant act out emotions, wouldn’t you act out a emotionless character perfectly? dolph is the man. 1989, 2004, then 2008.

  11. Jack Tarangul says:

    I like your views boss, I 2 HATED looneybin guy(I would beat his frickin ass so mercilessly)actor good in early x-files toombs ep tho, hated the(what’s cool? how about frolicing, skipping)parkour idiots, jigsaw=TommyleeJones 2face,Neuman,Dexter’s chick,totally ruined it 4 me.BARELY watchable,but it’s better than nothing I guess…yeah, I guess.Rank distant #2 of 3

    Love Dolph and his IDGAF voice and approach, THE MUSIC AND OPENING TITLES DESERVE MUCH PRAISE, brilliant job!!! Love Lou Jr.’s asskick of pizza guy (still always laugh) Not a perfect movie, but they did it in ’89 b4 it was so trendy and readily greenlighted. Dark,gritty,simple,fast paced and even stupid kids stuff was pretty gnarly. I’m gonna say it… IT’S AWESOME!!! My fave of 3 BY FAR FAR FAR.

    Jane is ok, but he’s wrong for it. Look at his face and stupid hair. I just don’t like him in this.And yes, slooow start.Nash’s Russian char. is insultingly goofy & lame. Supp. chars. awful.Movie still watchable imo is rank #3 of 3. THX4 CHANCE 2 SPEAK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s