Written by David Holland
This adaptation of “The Punisher” came out while I was in high school during that mandatory phase that boys my age went through when they were required to like “The Boondock Saints” (and any movie in that vein) to an unreasonable degree. Because the 2004 “Punisher” fits in that category (relatively small cast, lots of small sets with gratuitous violence), I look back on it fondly through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia.
I’ve watched a few Westerns that I enjoy, but I wouldn’t say I particularly love the genre. That’s why I am a little bit surprised that I enjoy this movie so much given that it is clearly written with the Western genre in mind. It’s got a classic sheriff (in this case DEA agent) working outside the law to clean up the town. Plus there are a couple quickdraw gunfights complete with Western music and sound effects.
Frank Castle plans his revenge from an apartment that is apparently not that well hidden, since The Russian (Kevin Nash) simply knocks on his front door. Castle’s three neighbors – Joan, Dave, and Bumpo – bring some levity to the movie. They are the sources of most of the film’s comic relief in an era before the MCU’s patented serious-to-silly ratio. Back in 2004 comic book movies were still trying to figure out tone. The Punisher could easily be 100% dark and serious in a film adaptation, and certainly some fans may want that, but I don’t mind that the neighbors humanize Castle a bit. Plus, we get the Thanksgiving scene with them and Bumpo’s iconic line “Thanks for leftovers and Diet Pepsi”.
Beyond all that, I just love a slow burn revenge. I like Castle’s intricate scheme to make Howard Saint murder his wife and Quentin, rather than simply doing it himself. Over time you watch Saint slowly begin to unravel as the walls close in while Castle fends off an increasingly colorful series of assassins.
I will acknowledge that I am approaching this movie as someone who hasn’t read many solo Punisher comics. Fans of the source material have a fair amount to complain about with this movie. The Punisher is one of those long-lasting characters that needs to have his origin story updated every so often due to the relentless march of time. So Frank Castle goes from being a Vietnam veteran to a First Gulf War veteran. I think you lose a little bit with this change, just because of the connotations of Vietnam in the minds of most Americans, but it’s an understandable decision. (This is off topic, but I do wonder how Marvel plans to justify Magneto’s sprightly agility given that surviving the Holocaust is such an integral party of his character.) And the good news for future Frank Castle adaptations is, that there is no shortage of other wars he could conceivably have fought in.
Other changes might also have bothered avid comics readers. Howard Saint, the film’s primary antagonist, is not a canonical villain. He was made up for the movie and boils down to a generic organized crime boss. The Punisher doesn’t have the most recognizable rogue’s gallery outside of The Kingpin or Bullseye, but Saint certainly doesn’t add much depth. The Russian does make an appearance for an extended fight scene, but that might not be enough to satisfy Punisher superfans. Finally, the tone may not work for everyone. I love the clear Western influences and the Die Hard feel of one ordinary man against a small number of enemies in tight spaces. But if you came to this adaptation of Punisher looking for huge set pieces in which Castle mows down rows of enemies, you could find yourself relatively disappointed by this film’s slow burn.
It’s a Western starring the Punisher! What’s not to love?
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