The Punisher is another adaptation of a Marvel comic, but one that came earlier than the current plague of them, and one that is much, much darker in tone.
Unlike the majority of Marvel’s stable, The Punisher is more vigilante than hero, and more likely to savagely beat someone to death than leave them conveniently webbed near a police station.
Thomas Jane plays Frank Castle, an undercover cop whose job is to take down the big players in the criminal underworld. Shortly after that, he plays Frank Castle, happily retired and enjoying time with his family. Shortly after that, he plays the Punisher, a vigilante striking back against the criminals who killed his entire extended family and left him for dead. There’s a lot of plot development in the first half hour.
As the Punisher, he goes after criminals who the law can’t or won’t stop. He doesn’t arrest them, or rough them up – he kills them. Violently. Brutally.
There’s a lot of violence. Stabbings, shootings, explosions. It’s relatively graphic, and the camera doesn’t shy away from it. Violence is almost always explicit – it’s only implicit when the victims are women and children. This is a good choice, because I think a film that began with the graphic murder of a child might struggle to retain its audience.
This is, as you may have gathered, a dark film. There’s torture and death – death of children and blonde women, which is rare even for films that otherwise are unflinchingly violent. It’s tonally very distinct from other Marvel films, without comforting happy endings or much humour. Everything is dark and sordid.
With that said, the film does occasionally attempt to be funny. It doesn’t work. Jokes and comic side characters fall rather flat when juxtaposed with maiming. It’s as though The Punisher occasionally forgets that it is meant to be a gritty film, and tries to be more standard superhero fare. The film is noticeably better when it sticks to the darker tone, and eschews one-liners and comic interludes.
One of the things that bears particular mention is the portrayal of the bad guys. They’re definitely bad, and shown to be so. However, by the end of the film, you find yourself feeling slightly sorry for them. The villains are humanised, and this characterisation is used to emphasise the brutality and uncompromising nature of the Punisher’s actions. Again, it’s made very clear that this is not a standard superhero film – it’s an altogether more nuanced and darker concept.
The Punisher is a solid vigilante film, and one that manages to stay relatively faithful to the source material. Thomas Jane is a good pick for the lead role, giving an appropriately tortured and taciturn performance. Everything fits together well, with only a few false notes.
The Punisher was all set to get a sequel, but it languished in development hell for ages, before rebooting with a different lead actor. The newer film is not very good. One related thing that is good is Dirty Laundry, an unofficial short film using the same lead actor as the Punisher. It’s a single, short sequence of vigilantism, but it’s very well-crafted, and worth watching.