By: John M Jerva
With news this week of Thomas Jane gearing up for a new action-thriller titled Relentless, I thought I would create a new sub section Action Rewind for the site called Essential Action and talk about the one role that most fans associate the actor with…The Punisher. After all, I never have done a proper review of the movie and it’s not only one of my favorites but it’s my wife’s as well. Released in 2004, this was the second adaptation of the infamous comic book vigilante after 1989’s version which starred Dolph Lundgren and this one couldn’t have been any different in size and tone. This is one of my most beloved characters and here, he was masterfully brought to life by Thomas Jane who nailed the part in dark and brooding spades. This is the role that Jane will always be associated with and for good reason.
Directed and co-written by Jonathan Hensleigh, this film took Frank Castle and adapted and crafted a Death Wish style tone to the proceedings as we get an origin story of Castle and how he goes from loving father and husband to the brutal and unapologetic gun toting killer made famous in comics and graphic novels. The story was taken from one of the most popular novel series Welcome Home Frank and while Hensleigh took a lot of liberties with the character, I still found this entry to be one of the best cinematic ventures. Many fans have cried foul of this one because of the changes but I always felt that these movies are taken from the source material but that doesn’t mean they have to be 100% like them.
First and foremost, Jane’s Castle is now an FBI agent instead of a cop although he’s still ex-military. Another big difference is that Castle only has one son instead of a daughter and son like in the comics. Again, these are small things and even though I’m a huge fan of the source material, I always welcome change if its done right and here I felt it was.
Hensleigh also changes locales on us and moves the action from the city of New York to the more tropical Tampa, Florida which I thought was interesting. Turns out filming in Tampa made things easier and cheaper as the budget wasn’t exactly huge for it. Again, this change didn’t kill anything for me and if anything, I like to switch things up now and again.
The reason why this film works in my eyes is because of Jane. He is one of those actors that can show up for just a few seconds and immediately make a movie better. Jane took the time seriously and payed respect to Castle. He also trained with Navy SEALS for seven months and added on a whopping 20 pounds for the role. Physicality aside, Jane oozes gravitas and here he literally brings Castle out of the pages of the graphic novels and proudly puts him on the big screen. From the very first minute, Jane is Frank Castle.
The other biggest draw, of course, is the addition of Hollywood icon John Travolta as he brings some serious cred and star power to his role of the antagonist Howard Saint. As bad guys go, Saint is a variable snake in the grass as he hides well in plain site amidst the backdrop of Tampa. He’s a career criminal and the only thing he loves more than making money is his family.
When one of Saint’s twin sons, played by James Carpinello, is accidentally gunned down during a raid orchestrated by an undercover Castle, Saint and his equally ruthless wife Livia (Laura Herring) vow to bring the person responsible down with a vengeance. She’s even more ruthless than her husband.
Unfortunately for Castle, who is newly retired, the Saints and their army of killers discover his true identity and proceed to annihilate Castle’s family and extended family and once removed relatives as well. This is one of the most brutal variations of the comic as in other adaptations only have Frank losing his wife and children but here, he loses them, his mom and dad ( played by the late, great Roy Scheider) and a string of relatives who have gathered for a family reunion. No body literally makes it out alive….except for Castle of course who is left for dead. It’s a tragic scene as men, women and children are viciously and mercilessly gunned down because that’s what Momma Saint wanted.
The biggest complaint about this version from die hards is that too much time is spent on Castle’s grieving process and not much on the stone cold killing aspect. I disagreed with this as I felt it made you feel more for him and when he does take on the mantra of The Punisher, it is extremely satisfying seeing the bad guys get their well deserved comeuppance. If you want all out bloodshed, then that’s what Ray Stevenson’s Punisher: War Zone is for. I always considered that film a pseudo sequel for this one as with Stevenson’s performance, he’s been The Punisher for years and he essentially is now just a one man killing machine. Jane’s interpretation shows us how we got to Stevenson’s version.
Castle is also more calculating in this film and instead of just running people over and putting a hail of bullets into unfortunate evil doers, Frank proceeds to dismantle Saint and his family from within. It is positively Shakespeare in all its glory. No worries though, when the time comes for the ass kicking, Jane delivers the brutal, bloody goods.
This Punisher is more of a slow burn here and most of the action comes in the satisfying finale. Before that though, there is action sprinkled throughout and we are given one of my favorite scenes where Frank takes on a guitar playing, singing hitman named Harry Heck (Mark Collie) who proceeds to serenade Castle with a nice little ditty called In Time before trying to take him out. It’s truly a captivating scene that serves up the right amount of tension. One of the best lines in the movie comes when Heck finishes his song and proceeds to tell Castle that he’s gonna sing it at his funeral.
We also have the fight between the Russian taken right from the pages of the comic and former wrestling superstar Kevin Nash is imposing and intimidating as the worthy opponent to say the least. It’s one hell of a down and dirty scrape with Castle simply trying to stay alive as the imposing Russian throws him around like a rag doll. Castle though uses his environment and his combat skills to eventually come out on top.
The finale which is preceded by one of the greatest preparing for war scenes ever is where the movie earns it stripes as Castle goes into full one one man army mode as he saws his way through Saint’s goons like they were paper. He uses everything from an M-203 to knives to a bow with arrows to grisly carve his path of punishment because as we all know, this isn’t vengeance, no, no it’s punishment. The scene is fast and furious and ruthless as Castle is chillingly systematic on how he takes out the trash. It is satisfying on every level and bloody with the best part being a knife rammed up the throat of one particular henchman who really deserved it.
The supporting cast is all top tier and like I said Travolta is on his A game as he brings his own dose of gravitas and sleaze to Howard Saint. In his eyes, he’s not a bad guy but just a cunning and ruthless businessman who believes 100% in an eye for an eye. It’s the world he lives in and he’ll kill anyone to keep what’s his. This is one of my favorite performances from the man and his inevitable fate is served…well cold.
Let’s not forget the trio of quirky neighbors who live in the run down apartment complex that Castle hides out in. Rebecca Romijn, Ben Foster and the late, great comedian John Pinette, who play Joan, Spacker Dave and Bumpo respectively, all steal the show as they try to get to know their mysterious neighbor only to get swept up in his world of cold blooded punishment. All three are a perfect homage to the characters in the graphic novel and they are here to bring a little humanity into Castle’s lifeless existence.
Then there’s the great performance turned in by awesome character actor Will Patton who plays Saint’s ruthless right hand man Quinton Glass. There’s way more to this character then meets the eye and Patton plays him with a steely eyed coldness that sends chills down one’s spine.
There is an extended cut DVD as well that features a great animated intro of a battle in Kuwait from when Castle was in the Marines. Hensleigh mentioned that this was the intro he wanted for the film but it was just too expensive as the budget for the film was reduced so to pull it off for the re-release, we see it in a comic book style animated short which is fitting given where the story comes from.
The other biggest difference in the longer cut is the subplot which features A. Russell Andrews as Jimmy Weeks who is a former comrade of Castle’s in the FBI. Spoiler alert follows as Weeks turns out to be crooked and it is him that sales Castle out and is responsible for Saint finding out who Castle really is and is solely responsible for the gruesome fate of Frank’s family. These added scenes add even more to the already heavy handed plot and when Weeks finally gets what is coming to him, it’s a great moment with the way Castle handles the situation.
It’s no secret that the character of The Punisher is one of my all time favorites and while I love all the theatrical interpretations of him for different reasons, Jane’s performance is one that always stuck with me. His version is a tragic hero who becomes an even more tragic anti-hero and Jane is nothing less than spectacular in the role. At one time, he was supposed to do a sequel but creative differences sidelined it and this would be his only feature length turn as Castle. We did get the love letter short film Dirty Laundry where he wonderfully reprised the role of Castle and that short film’s only bad aspect was that it wasn’t longer.
Flaws aside, the 2004 Punisher film with Jane is a cult classic that is just as impactful now as it was when it debuted all those years ago. Sure there might have been changes made from the source material but in the end, this was definitely a Punisher film filled with all the things that fans love about the character. It shows us just how far a man will go when he is filled with so much rage that all he sees is red. The ending is fitting and it leaves us wanting more as it shows Jane, now clad in a long dark trench coat with the iconic skull on his chest standing in isolation on a bridge as he has officially accepted who he has now become. Call him The Punisher.