The first live action Punisher flick was released straight to video in 1989 in the United States, while appearing theatrically around the world. Directed by Mark Goldblatt the film was his second after the cult action horror Dead Heat. Dolph Lundgren starred as Frank Castle in this mediocre action film. The first thing fans on The Punisher notice about this movie is that Castle does not wear his Skull logo. While this hurts the feel of the movie, it’s not the worst element of this adaption. That would be altering Castle’s origin. The Punisher as a character works and has endured because it was a random act of violence that kills his family. For this story to work and for him to become the Punisher he needs to have been not only innocent, but not engaged in any behavior that could result in his family being a target. His family needs to be collateral damage, not targets.
Despite ignoring nearly every plot element of the franchise they were adapting, the film is not a total throw away. While Frank Castle does not wear his signature skull, he leaves skull knife calling cards at the site of his kills, and in the film he is an appropriately feared figure in underworld communities. Mark Goldblatt also had Dolph wear an excessive amount of make-up in an effort to make his face seem more like a skull, while it doesn’t work and he just looks sick in some of the scenes, it was a novel idea. The plot of the film and the manner the action sequences are shot and choreographed have a cool high energy comic book vibe to them. Utlimately this Punisher is nothing more than a passable action flick in the mold created by the blockbuster flicks of the 1980’s. It’s not a dreadful movie, but a utter waste of the license.
Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh 2004’s Punisher fails miserably across the board, wasting the most resources every put into a Punisher movie. Like 1989’s flick the simple origin of Frank Castle in convoluted and utterly laid to waste. This failure is pronounced more than the 89′ flick because the film operates as an origin story. While Thomas Jane is the strongest actor to ever play Frank Castle his effort is wasted on a script that doesn’t nail a single element of the Punisher character. Jane’s Castle is constantly getting his ass kicked. He seems to survive by pure luck in nearly every violent encounter he is in. John Travolota plays a villain created by Hensleigh that is the least threatening villain to ever face off against the Punisher. The Punisher spends a large chunk of the movie framing Saint’s wife played by the amazing Laura Harring for adultery to trick Saint into killing her. This is the least Punisher action of all time.
Poor action, direction and plot the film opened against Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, one of the greatest revenge flick of all time. Despite grossing over 100 million on a 35 million budget the film is generally considered to be a failure. The re-issued extended DVD with an additional cartoon created as an intro testifies to this.
Thomas Jane declined involvement in 2008’s Punisher War Zone. He was replaced by Ray Stevenson who worked well as the Punisher, but struggled in portraying Frank Castle in the film’s few quiet scenes. Director Lexi Alexander nails the dark bombastic humor of Garth Ennis’ Punisher, but fails to convey the deep seated pain of Frank Castle. The movie has a feel that melds 1990’s Dick Tracy and 2008’s Rambo. While longtime fans finally get a chance to see Jigsaw on screen, like the two adaptations before it new characters are created exclusively for the film. I enjoyed War Zone far more than the previous Punisher entries, but can’t help wondering if some of this was due to the sheer disappointment of the previous films.
Dirty Laundry was directed by Phil Joanou and brings Thomas Jane back to the Punisher. Debuting at SDCC in 2012. This 10 minute short is the first film adaption to get both the character and environment right. While Castle is no stranger to shooting people, this short shows that it is who he is that is dangerous, not just his tools. Aside from borrowing music from Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight I can’t genuinely fault this fan film. Hell it even has the best Punisher line in any film so far. If you haven’t see this yet, do so now.
Avengers Confidential Black Widow & Punisher is worth mentioning as The Punisher has a great deal of screen time. I like anime, but am not a huge fan of the style. While this isn’t a great film, if you enjoy anime you this a passable distraction that neither impresses of offends.
Bonus Punisher moment. Click here and go to five minute and fifty one second mark to see a deleted scene from 1989’s Punisher where Frank Castle speaks out against open carry.