The good news for “Punisher: War Zone” is that it won’t be hard to improve on the two previous Punisher pics. I recently rewatched both films on DVD while preparing this piece on the character’s history for Metromix. (If you like the Punisher piece, check out a similar one I did over the summer on the Joker.)
My fondest memory of the first “Punisher” movie was reading about the making of the movie in the pages of Marvel Age, way back around 1987. I don’t think I saw the movie for another four or five years when I found a copy for rent at a video store in Flagstaff. The film was saddled with a very low budget, but if there’s any Marvel character that would work for, it’s the Punisher. But this budget was beyond low and the movie looks flat and lifeless. Dolph Lundgren with black dyed hair seemed like a great choice for the role at the time, but it pointed up one of the real problems in bringing this character to the screen. In the comics, most writers use first-person narration to get inside the Punisher’s head and it works great — you get easy access to the character’s thoughts and therefore a sense of what’s going on in his head. That makes it easier to show how brilliantly demented the character is, but doesn’t translate to screen at all. There was no way Lundgren could convey the character the same way with the few lines that making this film in a somewhat realistic fashion demands. It’s also amazing to me that they dropped the huge skull logo on his chest. I understand it was considered too comic-booky at the time, but it’s easy enough to just paint the logo on a T-shirt or the leather jacket Lundgren wore throughout the movie and retain the great effect it has. I also don’t understand why other changes were made — making Castle a cop isn’t the same as making him a soldier, and having him ride through the sewers on a motorcycle is in retrospect pretty silly.
Despite all that, I think the 2004 “Punisher” is even more disappointing. Again, the film was hampered by a minuscule budget, but the bigger problem was one of tone. This movie just didn’t know what it wanted to be, and veering from the goofiness of the Punisher’s pals Joan, Bumpo and Spacker Dave to the very violent deaths of the Castle family just confuses the audience. Maybe that’s why the individual clips of this movie I saw at a con somewhere looked so much better than the final movie, which evoked plenty of laughter in the advance press screening I caught a week or so before it was released. And it’s a shame, because Thomas Jane really looked the part and could, with a more consistent script, really knock it out of the ballpark. Same goes for the rest of the cast, which included John Travolta, Ben Foster and Rebecca Romijn. There was a good movie in there somewhere, it just never made it to the surface. (I don’t know if it’s true, but I recall someone telling me at the time this movie came out that Marvel and Lionsgate made back their money on this picture before it even opened due to strong foreign sales.)
Which brings us back to “Punisher: War Zone.” This looks very stylish and again has actors and a director that could make a very good Punisher movie. But there also were rumors of trouble and this is, yet again, a film that looks like it was made on a tight budget. What I think the movie needs to succeed is a good story like the ones done for years now in Punisher comics. It shouldn’t be that tough to take some of the better ones (the Steven Grant-Mike Zeck stuff would be ideal) and adapt it in a straighforward and serious manner. But nothing about making movies is easy, so here’s hoping that “War Zone” is a good movie in its own right and not just in comparison to the previous two.