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

Does this second outing fare better?

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.


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?


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.


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 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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Comments

Sputnik99

sputnik 99

I've never seen this movie, but I have seen AVP: Requiem, and this sounds a lot like it. Excessive violence for no reason. I think I'll skip it.

Jun 15 - 01:55 PM

Unbreakable Samurai

Unbreakable Samurai

It is better than AVP: Requiem.

Jun 16 - 11:40 AM

samrocker

Sam Rocker

way better than AVP requiem. If you can get past the fact that it has an incredibly depressing premise you might actually like it.

I actually wish they had cut out most of the comedy, actually nearly all of it, kept the film dark and serious in tone, and played more with Frank Castle's psyche and explored that.

That and I wish he had been more likable. Certain things are acceptable measures for a hero to take, but at some point he still has to kind of be good guy

Jun 16 - 03:54 PM

Sabius

Christopher Shine

I can't say I found anything offensive here. His family may have been killed but it was a largely off-screen bloodless affair made more intense by the performances. Getting blown off a pier is too much? Did you ever watch Darkman?
He FAKE tortures one guy,(a scene directly from Warzone #1)who then joins his cause, blackmails another guy (not because he's gay, he's a sadist) and c'mon are we really going into the maybe possible innocent people that theoretically could have been killed but the movie in no way implies or shows? Would it make people feel better if he wasn't a Marvel character? I mean where does the disgust come from? These reviews seem largely from people playing on their I-phones while eating and not really paying attention at all.
This movie was so criminally underrated it makes my hair burn.

Jun 17 - 05:56 PM

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Jun 19 - 06:40 PM

JC Martel

JC Martel

I kinda liked that movie. Also, Romijn is at her peak of hotness in that one.

Jun 15 - 02:02 PM

infernaldude

Infernal Dude

No mention of Travolta's death scene. I laughed my ass off at that part.

The Punisher character IS for sadists. Almost every Punisher fan I've met is into dark, violent "things" be it music, comics, whatever. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean Spawn was dark and violent but he was an interesting character and had McFarlane's art to back it up. The Punisher's motivations are just a reason to kill people. Period. He is about as deep as a mud puddle and should be a supporting character in the Marvel universe. Fans have been disappointed with him for years because of his shallowness.

Jun 15 - 02:04 PM

King Crunk

King Crunk

What's with Punisher fans only liking dark and violent music?? I'm a fan of The Punisher and I rock the damn Beach Boys! :)

Jun 15 - 03:31 PM

Brian R.

Brian Rokosz

agreed...i was the punisher for Halloween and I watched the CMA's and am going to Country Thunder. The kids I saw it with in theaters are, in order of non-sadists, 1)An accountant for Chase in Chicago, 2) A dad with 2 kids a wife and a volvo, and 3) A Priest....yup.

Jun 15 - 07:55 PM

infernaldude

Infernal Dude

Maybe there's something you two aren't admitting to yourselves....

Either way, the point I was trying to make is there should be no surprise that The Punisher films are excessively violent. That's what he is all about.

And all those people you mentioned Brian, did they like the movie? Maybe it was too dark and violent...or maybe they liked it. I'm still sticking by my statement because I think it rings true more than not.

On a side note, how do you remember who all the people were in the theater with you in 2004? Kinda, creepy...

Jun 15 - 08:42 PM

seanmprd78

Sean Guyon

Are you talking about how Travolta was on fire being dragged by the car, and then the next scene he is not? I couldn't get that one out of my head.

Jun 15 - 11:01 PM

Brian R.

Brian Rokosz

they all thought it was fun, but we also all play violent video games so idk...i mean if you think about it almost every show can be sadistic...the music in the movie resembled that type of culure as well, but we all thought it was fun...not a good movie by far though...keep in mind we also saw Eurotrip, Dude Wheres My Car, Undercover Brother, Goldmember, and a host of insanely horrible films during high school too...Punisher looks tame compared to John Rambo and even scenes in the Expendables. Not denying its violent, but also saying people just see different things when watching movies...although you wont believe me I like the Saw franchise for the very deep character story of John Kramer and how his mental breakdown and cancer ultimately ruins his overall goal of treating other people, i hate the torture scenes. thats just me tho....also, i will admit, im pretty gay for country music, like its uber fun...but if you saw Carrie Underwood's legs and lower butt from a few feet away u'd convert too.

Jun 16 - 09:19 AM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

This has got to be my guilty pleasure of the Marvel movies. I honestly don't see what's so bad about it. I mean, sure it's a little too violent (sadist violent), but I somehow liked the casting choices, & the action in here was great. But I hated how The Punisher & the other chick didn't hook up. I didn't read the comics, so, I shouldn't care. And I was surprised to see Eduardo Yanez make a cameo in here.

But why does this movie have a lower tomatometer score than than "Daredevil"?

Jun 15 - 02:10 PM

Pat G.

Pat Guder

I agree completely. I actually really like this movie. What I don't understand is the argument that it is too violent. Is it any more violent than most comics? Is it more violent than, say, a movie like Braveheart, or a sci-fi or fantasy movie where countless numbers of creatures are killed? I don't think so.

I also really like the casting. Thomas Jane is a favorite of mine, with roles in Boogie Nights and The Mist, and I really like Ben Foster.

I think the Punisher may be one of the hardest characters to bring to the big screen due to the fact that he intentionally has almost no ties to the outside world, and is alienated from the rest of the characters and the audience. He is an anti-hero, which naturally makes him hard to root for, leading to a certain amount of disconnect from the audience. But I think that makes the Punisher all the more compelling because we know he has been traumatized, and is reacting in a way many of us would probably want to in order to get revenge.

Jun 15 - 02:26 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

Well said

Jun 15 - 04:15 PM

Sabius

Christopher Shine

Very much agreed. I thought some of the scenes shocked me, but in a way to invest myself in the story and the characters. I can think of about 50 other movies far more violent that no one bats an eye at. This was an excellent movie, and Thomas Jane was perfect for it. Perfect enough to even be in the video game!

Jun 17 - 06:01 PM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

Great question re: "Daredevil." Granted, it's been 25 years since I watched "Howard the Duck," but at this moment in time, "Daredevil" is probably my least favorite Marvel movie.

Jun 15 - 02:57 PM

gridlock'd2

First Last

As much as hated Daredevil, at least they got the costume right. Just once I'd like to see a full-on Punisher costume. War Zone almost had it but they still back off the skull.

Jun 15 - 04:00 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

Daredevil is no worse than Ghost Rider (worst marvel movie ever). I have yet to see Howard the Duck (& I don't think I want to based on what I've read)

Jun 15 - 04:16 PM

TheMovieNerd

Tumelo Drametu

This is my guilty pleasure. Although i do believe that Frank Castle is too much of an unlikeable character to get his own movie, i think that this movie got pretty close.

Jun 15 - 02:20 PM

Zach N.

Zach Nix

Well, I enjoy moments of this movie. I can't say it's a great movie. I'd give it a 2.5/4. It's incredibly dark, and so lacking on action, that it can become a bit of a bore. But, there are about 10 minutes of absolute greatness in this movie. I dunno. I'll defend moments of it, but as a whole, no.

Jun 15 - 02:23 PM

Pat G.

Pat Guder

I agree completely. I actually really like this movie. What I don't understand is the argument that it is too violent. Is it any more violent than most comics? Is it more violent than, say, a movie like Braveheart, or a sci-fi or fantasy movie where countless numbers of creatures are killed? I don't think so.

I also really like the casting. Thomas Jane is a favorite of mine, with roles in Boogie Nights and The Mist, and I really like Ben Foster.

I think the Punisher may be one of the hardest characters to bring to the big screen due to the fact that he intentionally has almost no ties to the outside world, and is alienated from the rest of the characters and the audience. He is an anti-hero, which naturally makes him hard to root for, leading to a certain amount of disconnect from the audience. But I think that makes the Punisher all the more compelling because we know he has been traumatized, and is reacting in a way many of us would probably want to in order to get revenge.

Jun 15 - 02:26 PM

Frisby2007

Frisby 2007

Well said

Jun 15 - 04:15 PM

Sabius

Christopher Shine

Very much agreed. I thought some of the scenes shocked me, but in a way to invest myself in the story and the characters. I can think of about 50 other movies far more violent that no one bats an eye at. This was an excellent movie, and Thomas Jane was perfect for it. Perfect enough to even be in the video game!

Jun 17 - 06:01 PM

Noah James

Noah Kinsey

Quick question to the RT staff: Which version did you see? There is the theatrical and the extended cut. Knowing which one you saw will help a lot of reaers who have seen both (same goes for Daredevil).

The version I rewatched last night is the extended cut, so I will apoligize in advance if some thing don't make sense in my post. I saw the theatrical once, so I don't know what was added for the extended version.

I watched it again last night - and since I knew you guys were going to crap all over it (as you foreshadowed in your Dolph column) - I wanted to be extra skeptical to see where you'd find fault. The truth is, I don't see what was so wrong with it. The story was good, Jane did a great job with his character both before and after the massacre, his neighbors reminded hi of the good in the world still. But you aren't dissing THAT stuff, so let's address your concerns:

Was the mass murder of his family uncomfortable? Yes, but that was the point. It was incredibly gruesome and tragic. It was supposed to do two things: 1)Make you root for Castle to get justice, 2)Make it ok for a woman to be murdered - since Travolta's wife was shown as a soul-less monster by being the one to want the whole family killed. Whether that worked for you as viewers is personal preference, but let's not pretend like they went overboard just to go overboard. That's a gross simplification - like when people described Brokeback Mountain as "the gay cowboy movie" (I would have described it as "painfully slow", but I digress...). I mean, they killed his WHOLE family - did you expect him to slap on a WWJD bracelet and start over with his life?

In this essence (to me), this movie worked where the remake of The Last House on the Left failed. THIS movie followed up the brutality with equal retribution. After the horribly uncomfortable rape scene in Last House, the payback was incredibly disappointing. They went from being very detailed of the rape to the parents seeming to accidentally kill the guilty party (I seriously felt there should have been an "oops" line after each one was killed). That movie never earned the right to show the initial offense, but The Punisher did.

Part of your point on the graphic violence is that it was too brutal. My reply is: "Well...yea." It's The Punisher. He's Marvel's version of Batman - if Batman didn't know any martial arts, or have any problem with killing individuals. This movie didn't have him randomly stabbing his way to the top - he was smart about who he went after and how. And the brutal fights (like with Diesel. OOPS! I mean The Russian) were raw and had a great impact. Were you guys expecting a John Woo film - where everyone is born with zero gravity and fight around doves?

The Punisher isn't a hero. Let's make that painfully clear. He's an ANTI-HERO. He's the Stone Cold Steve Austin of the comic book world. He's an emotionless bastard, and he's proud of it. The readers are proud of it too.

The truth is - this is probabaly the closest we will come to having a Punisher movie that could appeal at all to any type of mainstream audience. I agree that a TV series would probably be the best live action medium, but I'm skeptical it would ever get a large enough viewership to have a decent run due to its niche fanbase.

Jun 15 - 02:43 PM

scifimark

scifi mark

I think the origin of the character when his entire family is massacred is very well done. So pretty much the first half i really liked but i just felt the movie was a letdown after that. It was ok and i did like Jane in the role. This is the best punisher movie they have made. The last one they made was just bad all around in my opinion

Jun 15 - 02:47 PM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

I can't speak for the other guys, but it isn't really that I thought it was too violent, per se; it's that I think you should FEEL violence like this -- the way you do in a couple of the movies I mentioned ("The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "A History of Violence"). In those films, there's no joy in death, and the camera lingers over it to remind you of violence's awful, inescapable consequences. In contrast, I thought Hensleigh -- and the pier scene is a good example -- was kind of giddy about the movie's violence. I mean, it's unpleasant, but you don't feel it on a gut level, and that's totally underscored by the awful Russian sequence.

Jun 15 - 02:54 PM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

Oh, and Noah: I watched whichever cut iTunes is offering as a rental. Not sure which one that is.

Jun 15 - 02:56 PM

Noah James

Noah Kinsey

That MAY be the theatrical cut. The only reason I think that is even the bluray is theatrical only. The extended is 140 minutes long. Does that help?

In the extended, the family don't get killed until 30 minutes into the movie - so the extended gives you time to feel that familial bond, which the theatrical may not. Once again, I don't remember the theatrical very well to know how they handled it.

Jun 15 - 03:09 PM

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles

I think this was only about two hours, so I'm guessing it was the theatrical cut -- and yeah, you don't really feel that familial bond at all. He comes home after the bust, has a scene with his wife, a scene with his son, and then everyone's in Puerto Rico.

Jun 15 - 03:14 PM

misterkyle1901

kyle T

Actually, I completely felt it on a gut level. The first time I saw the movie, I lost ten pounds.

Jun 15 - 09:39 PM

scifimark

scifi mark

I think the origin of the character when his entire family is massacred is very well done. So pretty much the first half i really liked but i just felt the movie was a letdown after that. It was ok and i did like Jane in the role. This is the best punisher movie they have made. The last one they made was just bad all around in my opinion

Jun 15 - 02:47 PM

Ram-Jam-Joe

joe adams

I don't understand how people can despise this film so much and praise "Kick-Ass" at the same time. People worship Chloe Moretz's character who is a young girl that's been raised to believe that killing people is ok and feels no empathy in killing people for almost no reason. I understand that her plot isn't the main point of "Kick-Ass," but it was her character that was praised as one of the best parts of the movie.

Jun 15 - 02:52 PM

King Crunk

King Crunk

It boils down to that old saying about there being a classy way to do something, and a trashy way to do something. Kick-Ass had heart, this movie does not.

Jun 15 - 03:40 PM

Ram-Jam-Joe

joe adams

I agree that there was 'some' heart in "Kick-Ass" although I didn't particularly care for it, but I just don't see where exception (Kick-Ass) and exclusion (The Punisher) rules come from. To me it was the exact same type of violence with the exact same motives for such violence.

Jun 15 - 04:25 PM

drachedeeis

Mike Sch

what an inane double standard

Jun 15 - 06:00 PM

TombstoneLawDog

Daniel Klein

I gotta agree with the guys crying 'Double Standard;' if you lament violence in a movie and your complaint is that it is too depraved/heartless/visceral, you kind of forfeit the right to go 'macro' and try to put it in a bigger perspective to defend it in some other context. The acts are (or _should_ be) utterly repellant, whether they're done by a trained soldier or adorable girl. I would submit that they are more repulsive in 'Punisher' because at least half the killings are personal, with a target that has been given a name and a personality. There actually seem to be consequences, physical, emotional and practical, to the acts of Frank killing his chief antagonists.
This is different from 'Kick-Ass' where they don't bother to give virtually any of Hit Girl's targets an identity. They are all fodder or stereotypes, and they even play the scenes up for laughs by playing up-beat, child-like music over the top. You are *supposed* to feel like the scene is surreal or comical, whereas in 'Punisher' you're just witnessing the acts, themselves (with the obvious nods to cinematography), and left to feel how you want afterwards. I actually appreciated the ambiguity- the movie wasn't telling me how to feel about any of this, just offering me a glimpse of it.

Personally, I kind of enjoyed this movie over-all ; I went in expecting ultra-violence and revenge, and I got it. Quite frankly this wasn't much more violent than 'The Crow.' I just think this character was a bit less charasmatic than Eric Draven, no fault of Thomas Jane.

Finally, the problem I did have with this movie is that the murder of Castle's wife and child seems almost like a scene-for-scene re-shoot of the murder of Mad Max' wife and child in that first movie. Looked like a COMPLETE rip.

Jun 16 - 07:23 AM

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