Vengeance: The Best and Worst of The Punisher On Film

With Frank Castle making his latest appearance on the Netflix Daredevil series, we take a look at the three different incarnations of The Punisher on film. 

In a world of death, bloodshed, and an undying search for vengeance, The Punisher seeks a decent movie. With hopes held high, we at The Movie Sleuth pray that Jon Bernthal's portrayal on the second season of Daredevil relights the dying flame that is The Punisher on film. 

Growing up as a loyal Punisher and Punisher: War Journal fan, each cinematic release has been a disappointment in some capacity. Via three different movies, the character of Frank Castle has been raked over the coals of ineptitude to varying degrees with Lexi Alexander's War Zone coming closest to the dark nature of the brooding man with an arsenal and a bad attitude. 

Long before comic books were a popular theatrical trend and way before Marvel had a chance to rule the multiplexes with numerous movies every year, The Punisher was one of the first offbeat, non-central characters to hit the screen. Since then, we've had three differing actors play Frank Castle in various incarnations, each with defined flaws and somewhat lackadaisical care for his vengeful ambitions. Still, we ask, why haven't they been able to get this right?  It shouldn't be that hard. 

The Punisher - Dolph Lundgren (1989)
A sewer dwelling Punisher takes to the streets to avenge the death of his family. With a miniscule budget and almost no attention paid to the origins of the character, this cheap looking release is the worst of the bunch. With a barely legible Dolph Lundgren taking on the role of Frank Castle, this version came and went in a matter of days. Skimping on the littlest things, including the lack of the Punisher skull, the costume design is something straight out of any other '80s vengeance flick. 

Played like an incoherent Death Wish ripoff, this Punisher is a mixed bag at best. Lacking any real connection to the comic other than some subtle plot points and a guy with a gun, this was a major flop. 

With terribly rendered action sequences and an altogether drab looking production design, 1989's The Punisher is a near abomination that plays it too loose and doesn't really capture the essence of the comic. Taking into account the support role played by Louis Gossett Jr., this could have been a lot better had they worked out the editing, scripting and pacing issues of the movie. Right off Red Scorpion, Lundgren plays Castle with a hardened tone that would be repeated in the much better 2008 War Zone, but the overall delivery of the film is a total misfire.

After they abysmal financial failure of this rendition, The Punisher would be missing from cinemas for 15 years. I can see why.

The Punisher - Thomas Jane (2004)
2004's film by Jonathan Hensleigh is the most straightforward, bigger budgeted, audience focused of the three films. And it's not that good. 

Trying to make Thomas Jane a believable Punisher is a herculean task. Yes, he's a great actor that has the chops to play a diverse set of roles. But, he's no Frank Castle. Not even in the slightest. This 2004 spin on Castle's story somewhat changes the origin tale and tries turning a hammy John Travolta into arch villain Howard Saint while Rebecca Romijn turns out another horrendous performance. 

Right at the beginning of the comic book movie surge came this rebooted take on the character's journey. Sadly, the Jane Punisher doesn't really play to fans of the comic. Instead, it goes for the throat with typical early 2000's type action and standard villainy tropes, making this just another failed shot at creating a franchise run. The 2004 movie doesn't have the grit, the sheer violence of the Punisher universe, and forces audiences to sit through another sad sack Travolta bad guy that isn't threatening in the least.

From a long running fan of the character, this is my least favorite of the films.

The Punisher: War Zone - Ray Stevenson (2008)
I can remember the day this was announced in vivid detail. Fans across the globe shook their heads in disbelief as the studio announced another take on The Punisher with another actor taking over after Jane decided to bail because of a script deemed too violent and different from the 2008 movie. 

War Zone came and went with little fanfare as director Lexi Alexander was ousted by the studio for giving them a supposedly unreleasable movie. Sadly for them, this was the best of the bunch. With a deep rooted satirical atmosphere, colorfully enhanced fluorescent lighting, brutality unhinged, and two great actors playing Looney Bin Jim and Jigsaw, War Zone is the closest thing we've ever gotten to a truly transposed Punisher movie. While some will bash the overtly gradient morality and the over the top violence of War Zone, Alexander hit the nail on the head. After years of waiting, someone finally captured a screen worthy version of The Punisher, flaws all still intact. 

This Punisher is loaded with over the top action, flesh ripping scenes of gunplay, unabashedly vile villains, cornball overacting, and a phenomenal dramatic actor carrying the weight of Frank Castle on his shoulders with ease. No, the movie isn't perfect and some will say it plays some plot points way too closely to that same year's The Dark Knight. However, as a lifelong fan of the book, War Zone gets more right than it gets wrong. War Zone looks like a comic book transferred to the realm of live action with gusto and a level of integrity not felt in the other releases. Alexander took chances with this flick. Other than the failed box office receipts, this is an artistically successful spin on Castle. 

Again, fans revolted and this Punisher movie flopped harder than anything else in 2008, thus ending the screen journey of the character until now.

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