When Jon Bernthal was cast as The Punisher in the second season of Daredevil, it felt like that the best man currently in the business was brought in to finally do the role justice. Any potential doubt that could have existed was washed away thanks to Bernthal’s portrayal and the excellent writing of the Netflix series. However, let’s not forget that the character of The Punisher has been given THREE chances in the world of cinema but has any of them come close to what Marvel Studios and Netflix delivered? Well, that’s what I’m asking in this special edition of Was It THAT Bad? That’s right, I’m taking a look at the three films of Frank Castle that have been released in the last 28 years (really? Almost 3 decades?) and asking if they were as bad as the critics stated and who really came close to embodying The Punisher.
First up is the 1989 release with Dolph Lundgren in the titular role, predictably titled; The Punisher.
Frank Castle (Lundgren) is waging a one-man war against crime, killing all the mobsters and criminals that get in his way. When it looks like two criminal families are going to destroy each other, The Punisher makes plans to sit back and watch the death unfold. However, plans change when one organization starts kidnapping the innocent children of the other organization and Castle reluctantly teams up with the mobster that put the hit out on his family and ending up being responsible for creating the persona of The Punisher.
So, was it THAT bad?
Short answer: Ehhhhh, kinda.
From a filmmaking standpoint, this first feature of The Punisher is not done well. The film quality is pretty ugly, the lighting is terrible, the sound with its bad ADR (like recording obvious adults to be the voices of children) and awkward foley work (like footsteps somehow continuing once a person has stopped walking) is distracting and the action is pretty bland and uninteresting. Additionally, the story is really boring and feels like a throwaway episode of a bad late 80s/early 90s Punisher-based television series. However, with that being said, Dolph Lundgren isn’t that bad of choice to play Frank Castle.
Lundgren is a very physically imposing man. Even to this day he’s massive and super intimidating and it made sense to have him as Castle back when this was produced. The only problem is that he doesn’t capture the essence of who Castle is. Aside from being a great military man, having a very deep and expansive knowledge of firearms and being really good at killing, The Punisher isn’t really a superhero (ignoring the times when the books gave him powers or made him Frankenstein’s monster). Sure, he works out but he’s not a giant, he’s kind of a normal dude (normal is relative to his body size here). The film does a great job of working around Lundgren’s height but there are times where you clearly see that The Punisher is a tower of a man and when that is added to the fact that Dolph doesn’t feel that committed to the role and delivers his lines like he’s half-asleep or even suffering from the flu, you have a version of The Punisher that kinda misses the mark… but not by a huge distance, mind you.
Next up, we have Thomas Jane now filling up the army boots, leather trench coat and skull shirt in the creatively titled, The Punisher.
After a mob boss (John Travolta) finds out that his son was killed in an undercover FBI sting led by a former military man named Frank Castle (Jane), he puts out a hit on the man and his entire family—and I mean, his ENTIRE family as they are literally all wiped out at a family reunion. Now broken and angry, Castle takes up arms as The Punisher and is out to destroy the mobster’s entire operation and kill all of his men… and also take out a giant silent Russian who dresses like a sailor on shore leave, fight a Johnny Cash impersonator, and protect his odd neighbors who bring in strange and very unsuccessful comic relief.
So, what this one THAT bad?
Short answer: Yeah, pretty much.
This second Punisher film is undone by a dragging story, some bad acting and a very, very uneven tone. While there are moments where the story very much feels like something Frank Castle would go through, there are also times that feel very un-Punisher as the character takes great lengths to not indiscriminately gun down his enemies in a whirlwind of bullets but, rather, is essentially pitting the enemies against each other through sneaky tricks. This is fine and not totally unheard of for the character but it robs the film of action and often drags the movie down because these flimsy sequences are just not delivered with any interest or intrigue. The film also suffers greatly by the presence of John Travolta—who is playing this mob character in a way that is exactly the same as almost every other bad guy he’s ever done. Every scene with him is just groan-inducing because he just doesn’t make a compelling antagonist.
However, the real killer for this early 2000’s attempt at adapting The Punisher is how the movie can’t quite nail down a cohesive tone. One moment you have Castle in utter anguish over the death of his family and ready to murder some knuckleheads and then the next minute you have Castle mugging at the camera in a silly fight with Kevin Nash as the giant Russian—and that’s juxtaposed with the likes of Ben Foster (who comes complete with a set of lip rings that make him look like he has herpes), John Pinette and Rebecca Romijn having a dance party while they make dinner. It’s freaking weird and this type of thing happens enough times that it makes the movie feel like there were two directors, each with their own vision and edit, and the two were just cut together into one mish-mashed film that can’t really blend together.
Now, how’s Thomas Jane as The Punisher? Well, first off, he’s the second Punisher who has an obvious dye job on the top of his head but, unlike Lundgren, Jane feels like a more down-to-Earth Frank Castle. While the two men may both look like they just stopped by the beauty salon to try a new hair color out, Jane isn’t a behemoth of a man and looks more like a military/law enforcement type of guy. Jane also does a great job of capturing Castle’s pain, anguish, and thirst for revenge. The only downside is there are a lot of times where his performance can’t capture the unhinged character’s convictions and the writers are trying to make him more of a 80s everyday man action star complete with bad one liners rather than the broken figure/mentally unstable man from the comics.
Now, finally, we have Punisher: War Zone with Ray Stevenson behind the trigger.
After The Punisher (Stevenson) accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent while on his bloody path to revenge, a mad mobster with a scarred face named Jigsaw (Dominic West) plans to get two birds with the low, low price of one stone. Utilizing his insane brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), Jigsaw kidnaps the undercover agent’s widow and kid and sets up a death trap of armed gunmen inside an abandoned hotel. Now Castle must unload every bullet and empty every clip he has in order to save the innocent and punish the evil
So, is this one THAT bad?
Short answer: Hell no! I absolutely and unapologetically LOVE this film!
Director Lexi Alexander really crafted a film that was able to somehow take all the problems and winning elements of the previous two Punisher movies and make something that worked together. Even more impressive is how she constructed a film that is able to honor both excessive 80s action features and the comic that the character was born from. Now, the movie is far from perfect and has some issues with some of the characters, some of the absurdity of it all gets to be too much at points and it is NOT for everyone but it doesn’t change the fact that the film is a wickedly entertaining and an über-violent extravaganza that is capable of being exciting and darkly amusing. The movie even works in some characters from the comics in the form of Jigsaw and Castle’s ally (and eventually turned enemy) Microchip (played by Wayne Knight) and that’s pretty big points in the film’s favor. Finally, the film has just some excellent music choices. While they may not be songs I particularly enjoy, they fit so well with the action taking place. It’s far better than the early 00’s alt-rock that plagued the last film. Songs from Seether, Amy Lee and Staind, with their sad lyrics and voices that sound like their mouths were full of peanut butter, just didn’t fit the character of The Punisher and the shredding guitars and screaming lyrics of this soundtrack matched the carnage Castle was creating exceptionally.
So, with that all being said, how was Stevenson as Frank Castle/The Punisher. Honestly, not bad. He certainly looks like the way I remember Castle being drawn back when I read issues of Punisher: War Journal and there’s definitely no deny he captured some of the essence of the character’s attitude. Additionally, he also felt like the middle ground between the last two actors as Stevenson is an imposing physical specimen much like Lundgren but to a degree that feels grounded and just a step above Jane. However, while Stevenson has the military/tactic-driven part of Castle’s attitude don’t perfect, he doesn’t have that unhinged quality or even the emotional state quite the same.
For the most part, these movies aren’t the best but each does have some merit and offer up some entertainment value. As for the actors playing Frank Castle/The Punisher, they all feel like they are just skimming the surface. None of the performances from any of these three actors are objectively bad—even when the actor is doing their worst with some of their deliveries (and some of them can be really weak with their delivery) they each are fairly decent in their respective roles. The only problem is that each actor seems to only be given a small fraction of who Frank Castle was and how he is as The Punisher. Concluding who is the best is pretty difficult because they each embody something about the character in their best moments but, the whole point of this project was to call out the best, non-Jon Bernthal Punisher, so I have to say that Ray Stevenson might be the winner. While he may be lacking on the more emotional end of the character that Thomas Jane nailed, he has the killer instinct of the character and looks more like the comic counterpart than any of the others.
Who was your favorite Punisher? Let us know in the comments.
Rev. Ron would make a terrible Punisher because the only guns he’s ever fired shoot either water or Nerf darts. Instead, he’ll stick to watching movies and reviewing them. You can read his reviews on his blog at RevRonMovies.BlogSpot.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@RevRonster).