(Continuing my old film reviews onto this blog, this is the version directed & co-written by Jonathan Hensleigh, and starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Roy Scheider, Samantha Mathis, Will Patton, Rebecca Ramijin Stamos, who should all know better.)
Although blatantly based on Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon’s ‘Welcome Back, Frank’ story line, this film has none of the humour or heart. Frank Castle (Jane) is now an undercover cop working in Florida investigating gun-running. In his last job, the feds kill one of the buyers when things go wrong, who happens to be the son of Mr Saint (Travolta), the extravagant villain of the film. For some particularly unexplained reason, he decides to extract his vengeance for the death of his stupid son from Castle and his entire family (although his wife is the one who adds the line, ‘entire family’).
So, while the Castle clan of around 30 people is having a reunion in Puerto Rico, they are brutally killed (including his father, played by Schieder for all of five minutes, and his wife played by Mathis for all of ten minutes), leaving the wife and child until last. They then catch up with Frank, who has been fighting back, and the brother of the dead son shoots him in the heart, but somehow misses from all of three feet, and then doesn’t bother making sure he is dead (for example, with a bullet in the head); instead, he sets fire to the pier Frank is on, thus leaving him the requisite amount of time to escape the ensuing explosion.
He is rescued by a local black fisherman (with a suggestion of links to voodoo that are neither mentioned again nor confirmed at the time) who heals him and takes him back to the scene of the crime, where he picks up the many guns his dad had and the familiar Punisher t-shirt that his son had bought him prior to his death for no other reason than to give him something cool to wear while he killed people.
He then gets a room in an out-of-the-way place in Tampa on the same floor as Joan (Stamos) who is now a lot prettier than in the comic, Bumpo (who isn’t as big as the comic) and Dave (formerly Spacker Dave in the book), just so the screenwriters can have those bits from the comics that they liked. After acquiring an inside man who also hates the Saints, he inexplicably turns up at a press conference, instead of hiding out and plotting his revenge, to ask why no one has been arrested for the murder of his family, which naturally alerts the Saints to his return from the dead and thus loses his only trump card. In another bit of tangent action, he steals money from Saint (who is laundering it for Columbian drug dealers), throws the rest of it out on the street, and kills two of Saint’s lackeys in a shoot-out styled wholly on a western film, down to the western shoot-out music.
Saint now sends a hitman after him, a professional from Memphis, who sings him a song in the diner where he is eating before later running him off the road and shooting at Castle in his car, which he has clairvoyantly protected with lots of armour (which shows some sense, which he lost when he made his presence public). The killer then gloats at Frank instead of killing him straight away, allowing Frank to shoot a knife out of its handle at his throat, which is very lucky albeit bloody stupid, and the killer doesn’t have time to kill Frank, even though he had a machine gun. Oh dear.
After an attempted bonding session with his floor mates because he sorted out one of Joan’s psychotic ex-boyfriends, and Joan tries the moves on him, this relaxes Frank in his attitude to security, allowing another assassin, the Russian (which was one of the funniest, if stupidest, parts of the comic book), entry and leading to a big, violent comedy fight, which is straight out of the book, but doesn’t work as well on film, and certainly not in the context of this poor movie, which is a straightforward revenge movie without the knowingness of the book. It feels out of place in the middle of the supposed grimness of killing his entire family (which isn’t canonical in the books, and isn’t shown in the book because you can’t show him killing loads of people in a black fashion while having comedy killings like the thing in the zoo, for example).
Saint’s thugs torture Dave for information (which he doesn’t provide), under the leadership of Will Patton, Saint’s right-hand man, who is gay, a fact that Saint is unaware of even though they have been working in crime together for many years. Then, Frank goes out and kills just about everybody in Saint’s hideout, after somehow persuading Saint by the most flimsy evidence that Patton and his wife have been having an affair behind his back, meaning Travolta gets to overact and be superbad by killing his wife (by throwing her on a train track) and stabbing his best friend after waffling on about the Romans or something. In this big finale, he uses bows and arrows, guns, grenades, shotguns and bombs (using the ‘Front toward the enemy’ visual nicked from the comic book), and kills Saint in the most ludicrously over-the-top manner imaginable, including shooting, dragging him from a car, setting him on fire and blowing him up, which causes a large Punisher skull shape to form in the car park, which can only be seen from the vantage point of fifty feet up in the air.
After this, Frank poses on a long bridge where he decides he is going to punish all bad guys, not just the people who killed his family, thus trying to provide the basis for an incredibly hopeful sequel. This is a very poor film that doesn’t understand the core material and uses it for a bland revenge film that wouldn’t have been out of place 10 years ago. They don’t understand Castle, or they would never have removed him from New York, which is implicit to his character, and the aspect of the Mafia as the reason for his continuing vendetta (probably because they thought the Mafia are bad enough, or they’ve been used too much, or that everyone likes them after the Sopranos or something equally inane). They also don’t understand black humour, which has to be very finely handled – Ennis and Dillon are experts, whereas the filmmakers are strictly amateurs. Another case of stick to the original material, and ignore this film.