“Go with God, Castle”
“God’s gonna sit this one out”
While some estimates at the time of the release of ‘The Punisher’ put its budget at about the $30 million mark, I remember later reading reports that it actually cost less than half that. And I find it terrible hard to be overly critical to a film that cheap.
In fact I do find things to enjoy in the movie. Thomas Jane looks the part and tries his best to make it work. For what limited action it can afford, you can appreciate that director Jonathan Hensleigh actually lets you see what is happening in the sequences, as opposed to certain unmentionable blockbusters which cost twenty times as much to make. I even think (gasp) there are a few well written dialogue scenes. Yes, we all know that the film should have been set in New York, a city intrinsically connected to the character of Frank Castle, as opposed to the chosen low budget alternative of Tampa, Florida. But that isn’t why the film fails to work as an adaptation of the character.
When Garth Ennis wrote the definitive Punisher story ‘Welcome Back Frank” in 2000, which inspired Hensleigh’s film in the first place, the tone of the piece was crystallized. ‘The Punisher’ is pulp entertainment. It was never meant to be approached as high literature. It is not the story of a man’s quest for redemption nor a psychological study of what makes a vigilante. In Ennis’ hands, ‘The Punisher is a high energy, maximum violence page turner. A hilarious, though mean spirited, mockery of the justice system and organized law in which a lone man, completely dehumanized by one tragic event, ventures on a ridiculously excessive and seemingly endless crusade to burn down every criminal that walks the Earth.
The whole joke of the piece is that every issue of Frank Castle’s adventures is essentially the same. In one comic, Castle will burst out of a coffin at a mob funeral and gun down so many people you would think New York would be crime free for the next decade, only for a fresh batch of hoods to turn up in the very next issue. And Ennis makes it a point to tell us that Castle is fully aware that he is not creating a solution to crime, nor is he particularly standing up for the weak and innocent. He does what he does because he enjoys it, having gone far beyond the point of simply avenging his family.
‘The Punisher’ is the story of a man who looses his marbles, plain and simple. It is about a guy who kills because he is good at it, because it makes him feel better and because nobody is in his life to tell him to stop. By the time Frank Castle has slayed his hundredth crime lord, you cannot even visualize the idea that this man had a family. Given how clear this message is in the comics, I cannot understand why Hensleigh decided to turn the piece into a grim, humorless story about a tortured soul.
In the film, Castle seems fully intent on blowing his brains out as soon as his final target crime lord Howard Saint is dead. The only thing that stops him is the memory of his wife and the image of her rejecting him in the afterlife because of what he has become. It is so morbid and, dare I say mature. And ‘The Punisher’ isn’t supposed to be mature. It is supposed to be the best gratuitous 80’s action movie that wasn’t made in that decade.
I mean it seems Hensleigh even forgot the name of the film he was making. It is called ‘The Punisher’. Even if you weren’t familiar with the character you would assume that he does the punishing himself in a hands on manner. In the film, just as in the Garth Ennis stories, Frank Castle must cut his way through a food chain of underworld hoods, killers and lowlifes, starting from the bottom and making his way up to the big boss. But where as in the comics Castle personally picks off his targets one by one in a variety of creative and grisly ways, the film robs the character of that and as such, robs it of its faithfulness to the source material.
The film version of Frank Castle enacts revenge on Howard Saint by sabotaging his organization, framing his subordinates as corrupt through a series of elaborate set ups. Eventually, Castle creates such a climate of mistrust for Saint that the villain kills his own people until only he remains, at which point, just before he himself gasps his final breath, is shown the way he was manipulated.
All of which can be made into a compelling revenge thriller…….but it isn’t ‘The Punisher’. The Frank Castle I know does not have the patience to, through elaborate use of a portable fire hydrant, set up both Saint’s wife and his right hand man as secret lovers so they can both be killed by the man himself. Castle’s version of justice isn’t patient. If he knows where you are, he is coming to kill you.
It sounds like I’m ripping the movie apart as if it violently and intentional veered from the source material. Truth be told, one section of the film’s second act is ripped straight from the pages of ‘Welcome Back Frank’. After each night of butchery, Castle returns to a shabby apartment block populated by fellow outcasts Joan the mouse, clinically obese Bumpo and the emaciated, pierced face Spacker Dave. The film latches onto the absurdity of a vigilante living next door, armed to the teeth and how his fellow tenants can’t seem to put the pieces together of what he does for a living.
When the violence comes home in the form of hired killer ‘The Russian’, Castle is critically wounded forcing his fellow neighbors to take care of him. And when Saint’s goons come looking for the Punisher, Spacker Dave shows his real metal is not plastered all over his face but in his resolve as he endures unspeakable torture for refusing to give up his friend. Castle is dumbfounded that this weedy little guy who looks not too dissimilar to the bugs he squashes when he goes to work would be willing to die for him.
Another particular scene I am fond of is when the three characters invite Castle to dinner one evening and Joan makes them say what they are thankful for. While the others list a long line of character defects and personal problems that they are thankful they are starting to overcome, Castle simply thanks Joan for dinner. A moment like that tells you all you need to know about his perspective on life.
But the characters serve an important function in the story in that they show that Castle has not gone completely off the deep end in terms of his sanity. For all that he has become, he still recognizes that there are good people in his city and they deserve not to be dragged into his world of violence. As Castle moves on to new pastures at the end of the story, he leaves Joan, Bumpo and Dave a large bundle of Saint’s cash so that they can get the hell out of it.
This one has been a frustrating subject to tackle and I apologize if I sounded a little rambled this week. It is difficult to criticize an adaptation of a high octane action character which didn’t have the necessary budget for an action picture. It is hard to know whether more money would have improved the film. It seems almost a certainty now that ‘The Punisher’ is not meant for the world of film. In the wake of Hensleigh’s effort, the franchise was rebooted in 2008 with a film which thoroughly embraced the adrenaline fueled lunacy of the character and dispended with any notion of subtle character beats.
And it bombed and sucked to boot. I guess you just can’t please this Punisher fan. But we will get onto ‘Punisher: War Zone’ in a few weeks time. Join me next week for a second swing at Spider-man.