Sunday, December 2, 2012
One of the popular opinions concerning the adaptation of comics to film is that Marvel's The Punisher has not yet been done successfully. That's only true in the sense that the character does not seem to have established himself on the big screen in such a way as to launch a tight group of sequels. But the fact that the character has been adapted three separate times, by different production teams does point to some level of success. We haven't seen any more Howard the Duck movies, if you follow my reasoning.
The first adaptation The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren from 1989 is a product of its times, a time when the exotic Japanese were taking over the world. Dolph was perhaps not the ideal casting for the anti-hero, but he does a remarkable job as the laconic and weirdly depressed avenger. Lundgren's Punisher is truly eccentric and likely insane, a key element of the actual Marvel character. This movie is damaged by a somewhat ramshackle plot and too much loquacious Louis Gossett Jr. for my tastes, but it does feature a nicely drawn villain played by Jeroen Krabbe. The movie is punctuated by some strong action sequences, the key to any good movie of this type. The ending is a bit offbeat, but the message to kids is definitely one of stay out of trouble. The Punisher here, as he motorcycles down the sewers is set up as something of a boogeyman for mob kids.
In 2004's The Punisher Thomas Jane reprises the role after fifteen years and gives us not a creature of the night, but a Punisher who lives in the daylight. Again we get good villains portrayed strongly by solid character actors. John Travolta delivers a somewhat flat but for him typical attempt at an offbeat and erratic badguy, but his scene chewing is a weakness in the end. Will Patton is much more credible as a dangerous opponent for the Punisher. The downside of this rendition is the addition of the neighbors who are there I guess for comedy relief, a vague hint of romance, and to draw out some empathy for the Punisher's relentlessly grim presence on screen. It doesn't work as well as it ought. There are again some dandy action sequences, but overall the movie is one in which you wait for good stuff while enduring the quieter bits. Thomas Jane like Dolph before him does a pretty good job of giving shape to Frank Castle, but is surrounded by less sure elements. For a pure bit of Jane's take on The Punisher check out this shockingly effective short film titled "Dirty Laundry" at this link.
Punisher War Zone from 2008 is my favorite of the three movies. Ray Stevenson is outstanding in the role, the most visually accurate yet. He is large enough (like Lundgren) to sell the action and he is a sufficiently strong actor (like Jane) to make you give a hoot about what he's doing. War Zone is the most like a Punisher comic of any of the movies, and that's a good thing for me. I rather like the early Punisher comics. The use of Jigsaw (played to the hilt by Dominic West) is a very good thing from my perspective. I have this pet theory that despite what comic fans say they want, which is a movie which is very like the comic book, the more a movie actually does that, the less well regarded it is by most fans. That seems to be the case with this movie. I've seen some people trash it, but I enjoy it thoroughly and find it exceedingly true to the comic I remember. I really would like to Stevenson play the role again.
The Punisher is one of Marvel's great surprises, a villain turned anti-hero. His early adventures are blood and guts pulp blended with trendy comic sensibilities. He's a character between worlds in the comics, who finds some level of success from time to time. That seems to be a trait shared with the character when he tries out the big screen too.