Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 16, 2018)
Given the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it feels strange to remember the days when movies based on DC Comics characters dominated the box office. 2002’s Spider-Man firmly altered this equation, but with era-defining hits like 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman, DC dominated in the 20th century.
Actually, Marvel barely even tried to compete with DC back then, a fact demonstrated in 1989. While Batman became the year’s biggest hit, Marvel responded with The Punisher, a flick with such tepid commercial prospects that it didn’t even run theatrically in the US.
In the more favorable climate of 2004, Marvel gave the franchise another shot via a reboot logically titled The Punisher. With a worldwide take of $54 million, it didn’t exactly dominate at the box office, but at least it showed up on movie screens, an improvement over its 1989 predecessor.
FBI Agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) retires to spend more time with his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and young son Will (Marcus Johns). However, this idyllic period ends when criminal kingpin Howard Saint (John Travolta) delivers violent retribution for the death of his son Bobby (James Carpinello).
This leaves Frank in bad shape and his family slaughtered. Despondent about his loss, Frank adopts the vigilante persona of “The Punisher”, a one-man judge/jury/executioner who sets out to take down Howard Saint.
20 years ago, Jane seemed destined for major stardom. He boasted leading man looks and enough talent that he felt like an actor who should’ve made the leap to “A-list” status.
Alas, that never occurred. Jane has maintained a perfectly credible career, but real fame escaped him.
Perhaps this occurred because he got stuck in mediocre projects like Punisher. While this never turns into a bad movie, it also fails to boast any real strengths to elevate it.
Punisher comes with a standard issue “lone vigilante out for revenge” plot, one with clear Western overtones. As trite as so many of the story’s elements may seem, they still come with the potential to create a reasonably involving drama if put into the right hands.
I guess those hands weren’t Jonathan Hensleigh’s. Best-known as the writer of 90s hits like Die Hard With a Vengeance and Jumani, Punisher marks Hensleigh’s directorial debut, and he doesn’t bring a lot of creativity to the proceedings.
Punisher often feels “paint by numbers”, as it follows predictable paths with predictable characters and predictable scenarios. This would become less of an issue if the film managed to show a pulse, but since it seems so bland and ordinary that it never threatens to deliver much in terms of excitement.
As for the cast, they offer respectable performances, though tone varies a lot and impacts their effectiveness. Punisher seems unsure of how gritty it wants to be, so it tosses out incongruous comic relief too often.
These moments subvert the drama. Not that Punisher needs to offer unrelenting doom ‘n’ gloom, but a greater sense of commitment to darkness would make it more effective.
All of this leaves Punisher as a wholly mediocre film. It brings just enough violent action to keep the audience with it, but the viewer seems likely to lack real engagement in the story and characters most of the time.