The UnPopular Opinion: The Punisher
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
If there is one character that Marvel Studios needs to give the reboot treatment to, it is THE PUNISHER. With three films featuring Frank Castle taking vigilante justice in his own hands, most fans are still clamoring for a film that does the iconic character justice. There was the shitty Dolph Lundgren film and the mediocre WAR ZONE sequel, but fans still feel strongly about Thomas Jane's performance as the titular antihero in the 2004 version. A decade later, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in full swing, Marvel Studios has the rights to reboot the character yet again but they shouldn't. In fact, they should make a direct sequel to Jonathan Hensleigh's under-appreciated movie.
Much like the majority of the Marvel-based films of the early 2000s, THE PUNISHER does not fit into a combined cinematic template. Where X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN, HULK, and FANTASTIC FOUR movies all featured their own unique take on what a comic book movie should look like, THE PUNISHER harkened back to a very different style of film that was much more popular and common in the 1970s. Taking a queue from movies like DEATH WISH and DIRTY HARRY, Jonathan Hensleigh's movie has almost no shred of levity or humor and instead wallows in the darkness of the subject matter.
THE PUNISHER is a sadistic and violent movie, just as it should be. The character of Frank Castle does not come from the same world as Tony Stark or Peter Parker, and yet this movie feels just as much a comic book as any other Marvel film to date. In fact, I would put the tone of this film more along the lines of Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT or the recent Netflix Daredevil series. The Punisher is a street level hero who uses his military training to aid him in a brutal quest for revenge. With that in mind, the movie is spot on with what it was trying to accomplish. The villains and henchmen all feel like comic book cliches and the women are femme fatales right out of a film noir, but all are put to use the way they should be in a story like this.
The cast may be the strongest part of this movie. Led by Thomas Jane, THE PUNISHER has a cast that, at the time, was pretty impressive for such a low budget affair. John Travolta was still making decent movies in 2004 and chews the scenery in this movie in a way that is directly reminiscent of BROKEN ARROW and FACE/OFF. Rebecca Romjin and Laura Harring are both incredibly sexy and get to do more than just stand around, something many movies in this genre had not done well before this film. But, it is Thomas Jane that truly makes this movie work. I have never heard a complaint about his portrayal of Frank Castle and his follow-up appearance in the bootleg film Dirty Laundry cements that he was perfectly cast in this role.
THE PUNISHER is a hardcore movie that could have easily been a Charles Bronson movie if the characters had different names. Like the fan favorite DREDD, this is a movie that has gained a cult following after it was lambasted when it originally premiered. Like FANTASTIC FOUR, this is a movie that is not trying to be high art but rather a solid comic book movie and it achieves that in spades. Some have complained that the story doesn't make sense, but I find it to be a lean and direct plot without two many twists and turns. This is not a movie that requires layered thinking or ulterior motives. The sole purpose of this film is the same as Frank Castle's: kill everyone and take no prisoners. This is not a forgiving film but that does not make it a bad one.
What may be THE PUNISHER's saving grace is the fact it was not created by Marvel Studios. When Daredevil premiered on Netflix, it represented the most adult and violent comic book adaptation in the MCU. If they were to create THE PUNISHER under that umbrella, it would not be as dark and mean as it needs to be. Frank Castle is not a nice character and THE PUNISHER is not a nice movie. What failed in WAR ZONE was the fact that it tried to go too over the top. THE PUNISHER revels in the practical effects needed for blood splatter and violent kill shots. This is a movie full of hand to hand combat and death, just the way it was meant to be. This is a street level comic book character but by no means is he a hero in the traditional sense. THE PUNISHER is too negative for Marvel Studios and that is why it works.
I firmly believe that Marvel needs characters that are apart from the MCU. There is no reason for Frank Castle to share the screen with characters who could blow him away with their god-like power. THE PUNISHER exemplifies why this kind of story works and it is the same reason GHOST RIDER failed. You cannot make THE PUNISHER in the same way you would IRON MAN or CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. With all of the darkness lurking in the corners of Marvel, this is not a Disney movie. Jonathan Hensleigh's film has problems and some of them are a product of when it was made and by whom, but that does not count this one out as an enjoyable flick. I would be glad to put THE PUNISHER alongside BLADE as the best of the non-canon Marvel films. Who know, maybe if Disney nuts up enough to try and make a new one, they can bring Thomas Jane along for the ride.
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