In this current age of rebooting one comic franchise or horror franchise after another, it is still something of a milestone that we have a single property, The Punisher, that has been rebooted twice in just four years by the same studio. Add that to the fact that the DVD version of the first go at it, nearly twenty years ago, was released by Artisan, which was eventually folded up into the very studio that has continually tried to reboot the property. Thus, we know have three distinct Punisher movies, all either originally financed or currently owned by Lionsgate. Let us take a moment to look at all three films (in their original R-rated cuts), in the context of each other. Obligatory spoiler warning for all three pictures...
The first Punisher film was released straight to video in 1990. It starred Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle and Louis Gossett Jr. as his ex partner and eventual confidante. Like the current Punisher: War Zone, this film is not an origin story and takes place five years into Castle's murderous vigilante rampage. The origin story is briefly touched upon in flashback, and it differs slightly from the comics (in this first film, Castle's family is blown up in a car bomb presumably meant for him).
Although the film never touched US theaters, it certainly looks polished enough to have been viewed on the silver screen without too much ridicule. There is action and violence galore, and Lundgren certainly didn't make any worse of a Punisher than any other muscle bound actor that would have been cast in those days. In fact, at the time of its release, most of the criticism from the comic geeks came not from the content of the film, but with the fact that Lundgren didn't wear Punisher's trademark skull on his black shirt. Truth be told, the only real signs of its low-budget origins is the lack of any truly grotesque violence and sensational gore. While there is blood and squib work, the film is almost reserved in (somewhat limited) number of bloody gunshot wounds. To be fair, some of that gore was apparently edited out of the picture.
Aside from the copious B-movie action, this original Punisher picture does have a few things going for it. First off are the decent supporting performances by Gossett Jr and Jeroen Krabbe as Gianni Franco, the man apparently behind the deaths of Castle's family. Also noteworthy is the plot itself, which is almost a rarity in comic book films in that it doesn't involve some villain or another specifically targeting our hero. Basically, the story involves the Yakazu crime family trying to muscle into the local syndicates. Frank Castle is more than willing to let the two parties slaughter each other, until Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) abducts the children of all the head mob bosses. Of the three films, this is the only one where the Punisher actually makes an effort to be a hero, to rescue or protect innocent people that he did not directly place in peril. Also of note is the film's finale, which is actually just a little emotionally compelling. It's not much, but it's the only Punisher film where Castle doesn't come off as a bit of a jerk due to the circumstances of the plotting. It's a B-picture all the way, but in some ways it's the purest distillation of a decidedly B-level comic book character.
The second Punisher picture, coming a whopping 15 years later, was a very different kind of movie. It was an attempt both to cash in on the comic book film craze and an attempt to create a down and dirty violent action film that would have been at home in the 1970s. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, this character-driven origin story starred Thomas Jane as Castle and John Travolta as mob boss Howard Saint. Unlike the first and third pictures, this was an origin story through and through.
The story this time concerns undercover cop Frank Castle, who's final assignment goes awry and results in the death of Howard Saint's son. At the behest of his grief-stricken wife, Saint orders the extermination of not just Castle's wife and son, but his entire extended family, which is conveniently gathered for a family reunion. After being left for dead, Castle begins an intricate plan for revenge, while inadvertently befriending a few residents of the apartment he has hidden himself in (the second act is loosely based on the acclaimed comic arc 'Welcome Back Frank').
While the emphasis on character and story over pointless action is admirable, the film suffers from a few severe problems. First of all, the film is not about the murderous vigilante and his blood-spewing quest to rid the world of criminals. It's actually a slowly paced caper where Castle uses stealth and cleverness to trick Saint into digging his own grave. Heck, post-family massacre, Castle only kills a four (?) people before the climactic action scene, and two of them are assassins sent to kill him (ie - self-defense). I'm all for using brains to achieve your goals, but when the vengeance-driven Punisher's scheme involves using a fake fire hydrant to get his mortal enemy a parking ticket, well, I'm not exactly in awe ("Massacre my entire family will you? Well, mister, you're about to get an unjust parking ticket! Take that! And, maybe you'll get a point on your license and your insurance rates will go up. You've just been 'punished'!").
Also worth noting is the lack of gore in this picture. While the film is serviceably violent (although most of the family massacre is tasteful and/or off screen), the attempt to make it a more respectable action film seems to have neutered the blood lust. There are a couple quick scenes of notable gore (the deaths of the two assassins, a scene where a man is vertically stabbed through the mouth), but Hensleigh seems to be holding back in a bid for respectability.
The biggest problem with the film is that Howard Saint is almost rendered too sympathetic (Travolta is actually quite good in this picture). First of all, Frank Castle really IS responsible for the death of Saint's son. Basically, Castle freaks out (while undercover) so he can be 'shot dead' by his fellow officers. Fair enough, but this freak out is what causes the commotion that causes the younger Saint to panic and get himself killed. While Saint orders an unforgivable act of retribution in a moment of grief, he spends the rest of the film struggling to maintain his money laundering business afloat. So basically, if not for the intervention of Frank Castle, Howard Saint would be a relatively non-violent money launderer. By the time Saint gets his just-deserts, following the complete annihilation of his business and his own family, I almost felt sorry for him.
Still, this is the most polished of the Punisher films, and arguably the best movie of the three. The relationships between Castle and his fellow apartment dwellers is serviceable enough. And Thomas Jane is the only Castle that I believed was a warm and loving family man before the fall (to be fair, I'm presuming that, in the other films and in the comics, years of 'punishing' has destroyed the real Frank Castle). It actually plays better on DVD than it did in theaters, and I'd imagine that it works best just as it was intended to: as a trashy action film to watch on cable TV on a Sunday afternoon.
Now we come to the third Punisher film, Punisher: War Zone. Again financed by Lionsgate, this one recasts the Punisher mythos as a kind of horror comedy. Directed by Levi Alexander and starring Ray Stevenson as Castle, this one fashions itself as an adaptation of the 'hardcore' Marvel Knights Punisher series (the logo at the beginning of the film is 'Marvel Knights' rather than 'Marvel Comics'). As such, this one is by far the most gore filled and blood drenched entry in the franchise. So if you want a Punisher picture where Castle and various criminals basically just walk around killing people in grotesque ways (my favorite is Castle punching through a man's head with his bare fist), then this may be your version. But in some ways, it's the worst picture of the three.
First of all, in a manner similar to the second Punisher film, there is actually very little action. After a wave of carnage that lasts an entire reel, the film settles down and doesn't really pick up again until the climax. Sure there are quick bursts of violence throughout the picture, but no real action between the first reel and the last. The second Punisher film had better actors and more complicated characters to compensate. This one does not (Ray Stevenson, from Rome, does what he can, but the plot cripples his ability to be sympathetic).
Once again, this is not an origin story, but rather a theoretical final Punisher adventure (no, he doesn't die). Set five years after the murder of his family (told in brief flashbacks, and identical to the original comics origin), this brute, monstrous Frank Castle (he doesn't speak a line of dialogue for the first 25 minutes) has wiped out a good portion of the organized crime in New York City. However, an attempt to collar the second-in command of a crime family goes terribly awry when Jack Napier falls into a vat of acid and becomes The Joker... no wait... I meant Billy Rossoti falls into a... uh... a machine that munches glass bottles or something and becomes the crazed Jigsaw (no, he does not want to play a game).
Sarcasm aside, the similarities between this new Punisher film and Tim Burton's Batman are striking. There's a good fifteen minutes or so of Billy Rossoti/Jigsaw scenes that are seemingly photocopied from the opening Jack Napier/Joker scenes in that 1989 ground breaker. Alas, Dominic West no Jack Nicholson. He does kill several people and spends most of the movie terrorizing a widow and her young daughter, but his shtick gets tired pretty quickly, especially with the ample amount of screen time he takes up (another similarity to Batman, where the main villain threatened to dominate the picture). Frankly, his brother 'Loony Bin Jim' registers as a more compelling villain, even if the over-the-top theatrics negate Doug Hutchison's best quality - his ability to play low-key savagery.
Oh, and during that glass bottle munching factory scene, Frank Castle inexplicably kills a federal agent by accident, which sets a chain of events in motion that puts everyone around him in mortal peril (including the MIA Wayne Knight, as Castle's only friend). More so than any of the other movies, The Punisher is directly responsible for the mayhem and chaos that goes down. As the plot unfolds, we quickly realize that if Castle had simply stayed out of the way, pretty much every bad guy that is targeted by Castle would have been arrested on capital charges in a matter of days anyway.
But this is not a film that overtly questions the nature of Castle's murderous quest, and in the end he learns that its OK to kill cops because it's a war and sometimes there's collateral damage. Even the murdered cop's ex-partner eventually comes around to Castle's way of thinking, as do the widow and daughter of Castle's whoopsie. The film creepily allows the daughter to form an emotional attachment to the man who killed her father and caused her and her mother to be in constant jeopardy for literally the entire film.
The problem with this whole thread is that it removes the fantasy element from the character. Although this is easily the most fantastical and cartoonish of the three Punisher films, it tries to inject real-life consequences to Castle's murderous vigilantism and still expect us to root for him. Sorry, but the fantasy of Castle is that he only kills the bad guys and never targets the innocent. Once you remove that criteria, then it is impossible to justify the concept of The Punisher, even in a fantasy scenario.
So we now have three distinctly different Punisher films. We have a low-budget B-movie, a $30 million budgeted action picture that emphasizes character over carnage, and then finally this $20 million budgeted and exceptionally violent cartoon. Ironically, if you remove the issues with the differing origins, they do have a chronological order to them. Watching the second film, then the first film, and then the third film, you can almost have some sense of a long story (the beginning, the middle, and the end).
I do not read the comic book, so I cannot say which is truer to the character or the original comic stories. All are severely flawed films concerning a severely flawed character (he was originally intended as a villain). I'd imagine that there will be much debate in the coming years over which one is the preferred film, at least until Lionsgate tries Punisher 4.0 (or until Marvel gets the rights back and does their own reboot). I find all three films guilty as charged.
The Punisher (1989) - C
The Punisher (2004) - C+
Punisher: War Zone (2008) - C-