Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at the 2004 Thomas Jane action film, The Punisher.
Last Time on ‘A Second Glance’: The Punisher (1989)
1989’s The Punisher was a flop that seemingly killed any hope of a follow-up film. Fifteen years after the original, director/writer Jonathan Hensleigh took a second shot at Frank Castle and his story. The Punisher (2004) stars Thomas Jane as the titular vigilante with John Travolta as the antagonist. This is an origin story, covering Frank Castle’s transition from family man to boogeyman of the underworld. The film made back its budget but is considered the worst of the three Punisher films. The movie stumbles a bit and tries too hard to shoehorn in references to Garth Ennis’ run on the comics. Nonetheless, The Punisher (2004) is the deepest and most interesting take on the character and obviously served as inspiration for the most recent version of Netflix’s Daredevil.
The Punisher starts fresh with the character. We meet Frank Castle (Tom Jane) posing as a German arms dealer named Otto Krieg for the FBI. A sting goes bad, and Bobby Saint (James Carpinello), the heir to a powerful crime family is killed. Word of Bobby’s death reaches his father, Howard Saint (John Travolta), who looks into Krieg’s life and discovers Frank Castle. Saint’s men track Castle down in Puerto Rico where he is attending a family reunion before going off to London to retire. Saint orders his men to kill Castle, but his wife Livia (Laura Harring) amends the order and demands that they kill his entire family.
Saint’s people show up and kill Castle’s entire extended family, both blood relatives, and in-laws. After having his entire world destroyed, Frank is brutally beaten by Bobby Saint’s twin brother John (also James Carpinello) and presumably blown up in an explosion on a pier. Having survived the explosion, Castle sets out not just to kill Howard Saint but to punish him.
A Fresh Start
Every other version of The Punisher allows us to meet Frank Castle after the traumatic event that made him who he is. At best, the audience is given a brief flashback to the death of his wife and child (or children in some cases). This film allows the audience to meet and fall in love with Castle’s wife, Maria (Samantha Mathis) and son, Will (Marcus Johns) before their tragic deaths. This helps the audience to truly understand Frank’s outlook and the decisions he makes.
The hardest thing to visualize is how a man so cold and merciless could have ever been a loving and kind family man. The Punisher gives us a Frank Castle who fits both roles, his love for his family is real and believable. Hensleigh plants seeds for every bit of who Frank will become in his other persona. Frank’s past as a special-ops soldier in Desert Storm provides the explanation for why he’s good at what he does. Even the skull symbol is given an origin as a t-shirt bought for Frank by his son just before his death.
A Cinematic Throwback
Jonathan Hensleigh had a particular vision with his take on The Punisher. Hensleigh didn’t want to just make another simple action movie; he wanted to do one with style. The Punisher hearkens back to 1970s cinema. There’s a lot of Death Wish in The Punisher’s DNA and more than a few nods to George Miller’s Mad Max and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. These similarities inform not only Hensleigh’s writing and direction but also Tom Jane’s take on the character.
The Punisher’s ’70s influence wasn’t limited to revenge and vigilante thrillers. Hensleigh put a lot of Spaghetti Western influence into the movie, most notably the films of Sergio Leone. Several shot compositions and action beats pay tribute to Italian Westerns, and this influence spreads to the score created by Carlo Siliotto.
There are a few more contemporary throwbacks. The guitar playing hitman Harry Heck (Mark Collie) seems to have stepped straight out of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy. And many of the darkly comedic moments, particularly the farcical fight between The Punisher and The Russian (Kevin Nash), have an early Quentin Tarantino vibe to them.
A Great Cast
The Punisher features a murderers’ row of great actors. Tom Jane was in his element on this film, and it is truly a shame that he didn’t continue with the character into the next installment. One would be forgiven for thinking that John Travolta is phoning it in during the first act. Travolta’s performance evolves as the film tears down Howard Saint’s life around him. Howard Saint may be the last truly great John Travolta performance.
Will Patton confirms his status as an underrated character actor as Saint’s second-in-command Quentin Glass. Eddie Jemison plays a weasely yet likable stoolie in Micky Duka, a character similar to one in the classic Punisher comics. Rebecca Romijn, Ben Foster, and late comedian John Pinette are a delightful supporting cast as the misfit trio of fellow tenants in Castle’s rundown apartment building.
Why Does The Punisher Deserve a Second Glance?
On Rotten Tomatoes, The Punisher is only 1% higher than its 1989 predecessor at 29%. There are reasons for this hate, but most of them are unfounded. Firstly, there is the belief that The Punisher isn’t violent enough for its source material. It’s true that the deaths of Castle’s family members are almost entirely bloodless, but that’s the only pulled punch. The Punisher earns its R-rating on blood and gore alone in its second half. Frank is not merely brutal in his destruction of Howard Saint’s life; his methods are clever and psychological, and his least violent plan creates the film’s darkest moment.
The other major complaint is that the film is a failure as an adaptation of Garth Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank. Ennis is credited with rescuing the character from a nearly decade-long downturn. Welcome Back, Frank was a course correction for the character which is credited with the revival of The Punisher as a viable property. And The Punisher is a truly horrible adaptation of that story, but it was never meant to be an adaptation.
The characters of Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Bumpo (John Pinette) appeared in Welcome Back, Frank in different forms. The Russian and Harry Heck were also in that story arc. The truth is that Ennis’ writing style doesn’t really mesh with what Jonathan Hensleigh was going for. Any attempt on the movie’s part to pay tribute to Ennis’ story is usually to the film’s detriment. It’s for the best that the film does its own thing and keeps that adaptation loose.
Above all, The Punisher is a well put-together action movie. The car chases, the blood and gore, even the explosions are almost all done practically. The action beats are staggered at a good pace and often memorable. The villains are all fully-realized characters with their own sympathetic traits and dramatic tensions. At two hours, the film is paced excellently, using four short acts rather than stretching the traditional three.
The Punisher is an intricate and meticulously created film featuring characters and story with depth. Its presentation has style, and it’s a thrilling and dramatic yet darkly comic joy. 2004’s The Punisher is the best realization of the character yet, and it’s well worth rediscovering for yourself.