Face-Off: The Punisher '04 vs. Punisher: War Zone

This week is all about Marvel, so in the midst of my excitement over the release of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR I decided to focus this Face-Off on two of the most Arrow in the Head appropriate Marvel adaptations that have ever been made: director Jonathan Hensleigh's 2004 version of THE PUNISHER and director Lexi Alexander's 2008 take on the material, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. Which of these films brought The Punisher to the screen in a more entertaining and satisfying way? Let's see...
Thomas Jane is awesome, but the Frank Castle he was given to play here doesn't quite feel like the Punisher I want to see in action - and not only because this is an origin story that dedicates a third of the running time to building up to the event (the murder of his family) that turns Frank into a vigilante, while giving the character a new back story that includes a career working in the FBI. Jane has the stoic tough guy thing down, but this Frank toys with his prey to an excessive degree, spending an inordinate amount of time following people, taking pictures, moving around fake fire hydrants, and manipulating villains into killing other villains. It isn't until the very end that Frank becomes the one man army I expect the Punisher to be. This isn't just "The Punisher Begins"; it feels like "The Punisher Restrained".
A reboot that started out being developed as a sequel, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE gets right to the action, presenting what I find to be the best version of the Punisher that has ever been on screen (Dolph Lundgren movie and Jon Bernthal series included). This is the character as I see him on the page, and as I want to see him brought to life on screen. And he has the most comics accurate origin story, which is simply conveyed through dialogue and quick flashbacks. He's an unstoppable, relentless killing machine who drops right into the middle of situations where he is outnumbered and proceeds to lay waste to his enemies. In fact, he's a little too trigger happy. He has a moral crisis in this film after accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent, and contacts the dead man's family in an attempt to atone for his sins.
When the son of a criminal kingpin is killed in an FBI sting gone bad that was led by Frank Castle, grieving mother Livia Saint (Laura Harring) requests that her husband Howard (John Travolta) have Frank's entire family killed. It would have been interesting if Livia was the final villain Frank had to face. Instead, she's overshadowed by her husband. As Frank takes down Saint's empire, Howard is easily manipulated into making moves that are against his own interest, and every right move he makes goes terribly wrong. Travolta doesn't ham it up as much as you might fear, and Howard Saint comes off as a decent villain despite being played for a fool.
WAR ZONE's best asset is its portrayal of The Punisher. Its greatest downfall is its over-the-top, cartoony, ridiculous villains, and one of the biggest offenders in that regard is Dominic West's ham and cheese performance as sleazy, vain mobster Billy "The Beaut" Russotti, who takes on the name Jigsaw after his face is destroyed in a recycling plant's glass crusher. Jigsaw clowns his way through the film like a second rate Joker, and if you don't cringe when he recruits criminals into his anti-Punisher cause by delivering a speech against the backdrop of the American flag Patton style, you have a higher tolerance for nonsense than I do.
While Saint has a lot of guys who are ready to kill for him, most of them don't make much of an impression. They're just around so Frank can rack up an acceptable body count. A standout among the bunch is Saint's right hand man Quentin Glass, who mainly stands out because he's played by Will Patton. More interesting are the hitmen Saint calls in: musician Harry Heck (Mark Collie), who plays a song for Frank before attempting to kill him, and a hulking beast called The Russian (Kevin Nash), who is nearly unstoppable and tosses Frank around like a rag doll.
There are a lot more fodder henchmen here, and some of the secondary villains are almost as bad as Jigsaw. His brother Loony Bin Jim, played by Doug Hutchison, may be even worse. Hutchison almost literally chews the scenery and does literally smash into a lot of it, flipping around like a gymnast while doing so. This is the sort of character who will say "I axed you a question!" while chopping somebody to death with an axe, which means he's not the sort of character I enjoy watching. At least the goofball parkour gang meets a suitably silly demise.
When it comes to helping him on his mission, most of Frank's pals in this film are completely worthless. Joan, Bumpo, and Spacker Dave, his neighbors in the apartment building he operates out of, are actually included here to show him that there is an alternative to the vigilante life. He can make friends again, be welcomed into a new type of family, maybe even fall in love. It's not helpful when Frank is out to kill people. He does get some needed assistance from Saint's weaselly associate Mickey Duka, who agrees to help him after a fun "torture" scene involving a blowtorch, a slab of meat, and a popsicle.
Frank has quite a support system in this one. There's his buddy Microchip, who procures all sorts of cool weapons for him with some help from a guy named Carlos. Frank also manages to befriend a lot of people who were connected to the FBI agent he accidentally killed, including the man's wife and young daughter, who end up serving as damsels in distress, and his former partner Paul Budiansky, who joins Detective Martin Soap on the NYPD's Punisher Task Force. As it turns out, Soap is also an ally of Frank's. Budiansky starts off wanting to take Frank down, but ultimately fights the bad guys alongside him.
Frank starts off by hitting Saint where it really hurts: in his bank account. He drops loads of the criminal's money on the streets of Tampa, and later blows up some more of it. He then proves to be a master manipulator, playing a psychological game with Saint and causing him to murder his own wife and best friend. He does this simply so he can rub it in Saint's face about thirty seconds before the man dies. So why bother in the first place? I'd rather watch the scenes in which Frank weapons up and mows down multiple bad guys. He kills more than twenty people over the course of the film, the highlight being the climactic sequence in which he pulls off most of those kills with the use of guns, bombs, and a bow and arrow.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE really shines in this department, making up for its atrocious villains by having those villains get killed in spectacular, often gory ways that are highly entertaining to watch. Frank's PUNISHER '04 body count is topped within the first action sequence, and there are a lot of kills to come after that. The Punisher racks up almost a hundred kills by the time the end credits start rolling, blowing people up, gunning them down, cracking necks, cutting off heads, impaling, stabbing... At one point he even caves a bad guy's face in with a punch, which might be a step too far, but I'll go with it. This is the sort of carnage I want to see in a Punisher story, and WAR ZONE delivers it in glorious fashion.
The villains in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE are a cartoon nightmare, but the film still manages to pull off the win with a pitch-perfect presentation of The Punisher himself and of the wrath he brings down upon the criminals who cross his path. THE PUNISHER has its merits, but is dragged down by the slow and steady approach taken to the dismantling of Howard Saint's life and business. It's not a fully satisfying movie to me, because it leaves me wanting to see a sequel in which the title character is let off the leash Hensleigh had him on. WAR ZONE delivers the sort of violent vengeance I wanted to see in '04.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you think the 2004 film should have been the victor? Share your thoughts on these films, and how they hold up when compared to the Dolph Lundgren movie and the Netflix series, in the comments section below. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].

Thanks to reader Martin Tollberg for suggesting this match-up!



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