The Punisher (2004) review: Almost as cheesy as Ghost Rider 2
This movie tries to be gritty, but the out-of-place goofiness is too distracting.
I’m not going to lie, I was dreading this movie.
After the ungodly slog that was the 1989 Punisher movie, the prospect of sitting through another one made my skin crawl. I had never seen the 2004 movie before, and while I knew reviews were mixed, I really didn’t know what to expect. Last week I suffered through one Punisher film that featured a naked, oiled-up Dolph Lundgren (whose image is still haunting my nightmares) and lasted only an hour and a half but felt twice as long. This one is just over two hours. The verdict? Well, I managed to stay awake this time.
At least this movie is being faithful to Frank Castle’s background. He’s back to being an FBI operative and a veteran rather than your standard police officer. The movie starts with the undercover Castle busting an illegal arms deal which results in the death of Robert, the son of mob boss Howard Saint.
Well, Daddy Saint is not happy that Sonny Saint is dead and fully blames Frank Castle (even though his son was clearly a dumb-ass). Howard Saint is played by John Travolta who is clearly prepping for Gotti as he channels his inner Godfather-meets-Sinatra.
Travolta and his wife are super pissed that their son is dead and call for their goons to kill not only Castle but Castle’s whole family. All of them. Even Michael Corleone-wannabes don’t screw around.
Well, the Punisher skull insignia is in the movie this time, but the way it’s introduced is...weird. Castle’s eight-year-old son gifts his father a skull T-shirt because the guy selling it told him it would “protect against evil spirits.” Kid, I hope you got an insurance policy on that shirt — I have a feeling it’s not going to help you. Something tells me the next scene is going to feel really awkward after this.
Unlike the 1989 movie, at least you feel some empathy for Castle. In the Dolph Lundgren film, the murder of Castle’s family is mentioned once and that’s it. Here, Castle has retired after years of service and he’s moving his family to London — everyone is happy! Then everyone dies.
So, we do actually see Castle’s wife and son killed. But the writers decided to take it up a notch. You see, the Castles are attending a big family reunion, so the entire family is gunned down. Mom, Dad, aunts, second cousins, that weird uncle — all dead. When the Saints said to kill his whole damn family, they weren’t leaving anyone out.
The Saints then proceed to have celebratory sex when they get news of the successful murders.
Castle barely survives the murder spree and is declared dead for months. I guess that t-shirt’s evil-protection powers only extend to the direct owner and not immediate family.
Once Castle recovers, he asks his FBI buddies for help in nabbing the Saints. But his old colleagues are completely useless because they’re too scared of John Travolta. So, he’s on his own.
The rest of the movie is mostly a perpetual back-and-forth between Castle and Saint. Castle does something to screw up Saint’s business, then Saint sends one his goons to kill him in a ludicrous manner, then Castle will kill said goon in a likewise over-the-top fashion. I kid you not, one guy — who looks like a Johhny Cash impersonator who stole Ozzy Osbourne’s nail polish — plays Castle a song on his guitar before trying to murder him.
Seriously, look at this.
This is the main problem with the movie — it can’t figure out its tone and the mood it wants to convey. Going into a Punisher movie, you expect it to be dark, gritty, and violent. That’s fine -- but it should be consistent. The movie does have a dark tone, but the mood is ruined when it pulls out cartoonishly goofy scenes like the guitar player. Or Castle fighting a guy while La donna e mobile plays in the background. Or Castle planting a fake fire hydrant in front of Saint’s wife’s car so she’ll get ticketed and call Howard’s second-in-command for help, which convinces Saint that his wife is cheating on him with his gay best friend. Yes, that was a real plot point. And no, I never dreamed that would be a sentence I would actually write one day.
And then there are these two.
If you haven’t figured it out just by looking at the above image, I’ll tell you right now — yes, those are the comic relief guys. I never thought comic relief characters were necessary for a Punisher movie, but somehow we got them. And yes, they are defined by the most shallow of character traits — Bumpo is fat and likes food while Dave is gnarly and high. It was the early 2000s — those were definitely character traits back then.
There’s an entire subplot where Castle befriends the tenants in his building. I guess this was supposed to help him reconnect with his humanity, but having these two side characters bumbling around just goes back to the tone problem of this movie. This kind of humor might work in other superhero movies, but not here.
Oh yeah, Rebecca Romijn is also in this movie as one of the neighbors.
She’s the girl. That’s it. The writers clearly decided that since the wife is dead, they needed to throw another girl into the mix. She doesn’t need character development, she just needs to be there to stare longingly at Frank — and so the writers can hit their female character quota for the movie.
I’ll give the movie this much credit, I wasn’t so mind-numbingly bored as I was with the 1989 Punisher movie. This was mostly due to just how jarringly bizarre it became, but if I had to choose, I’ll say that this one is better. That’s not saying this movie is good — it’s not. But if you just want to watch a mindless shoot-em-up film with explosions, big guns, and little substance, this might do the trick (though there are better films for that). Good God, after two underwhelming cinematic Punishers, I just hope the Netflix series managed to get it right.
Rewind is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten performances we love.
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