Long-time readers of this column are acutely aware of the fact that I am not big on the huge, tentpole comic-based films that are the rage these days.
In addition to never having been much of a comic book fan as a kid, I resent what the genre has done to Hollywood studio filmmaking. These days, if it’s not based on a comic book or graphic novel, and it doesn’t have the potential to spawn a franchise, a Burger King tie-in, and heavy merchandising, a project will most likely not get made.
With the skyrocketing costs associated with creating and marketing a film in the studio method these days, executives have become exceedingly risk-averse in greenlighting anything that doesn’t have a high probability of recouping its costs and profiting handsomely. Thus, they feel much more comfortable adapting something that has proven popular in another medium, even if it’s clear that it will rely heavily on explosions and effects, as opposed to engaging character arcs or perfect act structure, to get butts in seats.
Ultimately, it has forced smaller story creators to beg, borrow, and steal to get anything made in the independent film world.
It’s sad for someone like me, who spent years studying and worshiping the grounded, character and plot driven pictures that Hollywood once put out in the past, especially in the young auteur period of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Having said that, out of the morass of movies based on comics and graphic novels that have come out in the last twenty years or so, there was one that I was always somewhat intrigued by, but just never got around to watching. Its revenge-film genre roots definitely appeal to my sense of cinema, and what’s more, I’ve heard that it’s apparently quite a car movie to boot.
This month, we’re going to have a look at the film and the cars therein 2004’s The Punisher.
The original source material for The Punisher was a character that debuted in a February, 1974 edition of The Amazing Spider-Man comic book published by Marvel Comics. The protagonist, Francis Castiglione, whose alter-ego was known in the comic simply as Punisher, was an adversary of Spider-Man.
Spurred by the murder of his wife and child by the New York Mafia, Punisher employed all sorts of illegal and nefarious tactics, including assassinations, extortion, kidnapping and murder to exact his revenge on organized crime figures.
Development for the film adaptation began in earnest in 2000, with Marvel teaming up with Artisan Entertainment, Valhalla Motion Pictures, and Columbia Pictures as the principle production and financial entities.
Screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France were brought on to pen the script, with Hensleigh also signed on to make his directorial debut.
The story was largely based on two spin-off Punisher graphic novels, Welcome Back, Frank and The Punisher: Year One. Allegedly, the script went through many drafts in which scenes had to be cut owing to the tight $33 million budget, which was way lower than most films of this ilk.
Despite the barely-adequate funding, the producers managed to assemble quite an illustrious cast for the film. Thomas Jane, a rising star after notable turns in Deep Blue Sea, Boogie Nights, and The Sweetest Thing, was cast as Frank Castle (shortened from Castiglione), and John Travolta was signed as arch-villain, Howard Saint. Rounding out the ensemble was Samantha Mathis, Ben Foster, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn, and Roy Scheider.
The movie opens on Castle, a former Special Forces soldier and Iraq war hero, deep undercover on the final day of his career as an FBI Special Agent. The sting operation he is heading, aimed at breaking up a gun smuggling ring in Tampa, goes bad, resulting in the death of the one of the participants, the son of organized crime figure Howard Saint.
Seeking revenge, Saint and his wife order a hit on Castle and his entire family, who have gathered together for a family reunion in Puerto Rico. The hit team manages to kill Castle’s father (Scheider), his wife (Mathis) and son, and leaves Castle himself shot and left for dead.
Castle is nursed back to health by an acquaintance and returns to Tampa to wipe out all those involved in the murders. Aided by new friends Spacker Dave (Foster) and Joan (Romijn), Castle sets up several of Saint’s crew to suspect one another of treachery, resulting in them killing one another.
Meanwhile, Castle must also contend with hit men hired by Saint to kill him, as he relentlessly eliminates all in Saint’s organization, on his way to confronting the crime boss himself.
You would think with a revenge narrative that simple, it would be fairly easy for a decent film to result. I mean, John Wick managed it with a similarly straightforward plot. Sadly though, The Punisher doesn’t follow suit, as it has a number of flaws that haunt it.
The movie’s primary issue is that of an inconsistent tone. The first act of the film is exceedingly dark and realistic, focusing on the sting operation, the reunion massacre and Castle’s near-fatal wound. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as most revenge films, such as First Blood, Walking Tall, and indeed, John Wick, are gritty movies.
The problem arises after this, when the tone suddenly and incongruously shifts to non-realism, with over-the-top, comic-style characters and slapstick humor sprinkled in throughout the second act.
You would think that a country music-performing hit man, and a seven-foot-tall killer with a bleach-blonde pompadour and a bright, red-and-white striped shirt would be characters in an altogether different movie given the grounded realism at the film’s start. Yet here they are, and they come off as just plain insipid.
Moreover, films like this typically depend on a suspension of disbelief to allow the viewer to fully accept the more fanciful elements of the plot, and The Punisher fails to accomplish that. The movie is so full of absurdities such as people flying yards backwards after being shot, folks walking away from horrendous car crashes without a scratch, and characters appearing out of nowhere at a seminal moment, that any hope of keeping you engaged with the world of the film is destroyed. And does someone want to explain to me how Castle survived a point blank, center-mass 9mm shot and managed to swim away? Ridiculous.
I could go on about poor direction and mediocre performances from Travolta, Patton and Foster, but you get the drift. Instead, let’s just talk about the cars, cause they are the only plus here.
Frank Castle’s main mode of transportation in the film is a muscle car favorite: a 1969 Pontiac GTO. Quasi murdered-out in matte, dark gray paint, Castle outfits the car with a modified V8 that he wrenches on himself, and pull-down, bulletproof interior steel shields.
Castle drives the car hard throughout the proceedings, and even jumps an opening drawbridge. Sadly, the GTO is severely shot up by a 12-gauge toting hitman, and then ultimately destroyed in a chase.
For filming, the production utilized five cars – four of them real GTOs and one dressed-up Le Mans. The latter was the car that performed the bridge jump and was destroyed in the chase sequence. Thank you, Hollywood, for not destroying a real GTO.
Four of the five cars sported automatic transmissions, the preferred choice for stuntmen to perform their trade. All the cars were fitted with new Positraction diffs, intake manifolds, carburetors, wheels and tires for filming courtesy of Year One, which explains why their logo is seen on the car’s front plate in the movie.
One of the surviving stunt cars was sold at Mecum Auctions in 2011 for a mere $13,000. It has since changed hands several times, at one point residing in a museum as a display car.
Another prime car in the movie is what looks like a 1968 Plymouth Road Runner coupe. In actuality, the car was a run-of-the-mill Satellite dressed up like its low-cost, high performance cousin, as it too is dealt some significant blows in the film which would be rather cruel to do to a pricey, big-block, vintage Mopar.
Driven by the aforementioned country-singing hitman, the car looks gorgeous in Lime Light green (not an available color on ‘68s) with a blacked-out hood. A good-looking whip for sure.
Other excellent rides in the film include a 1997 C5 Corvette, a 1994 Ferrari 348, a Ford GT40, a Jaguar XJR and XK8, a 427 Shelby Cobra (likely a replica), and one of my favorite supercars of all time – a glorious 2002 Aston Martin Vanquish. Quite a collection of cars.
The Punisher could have had a shot at being a classic revenge film if only it had been kept grounded by the director. Although the movie’s cars are excellent, they are sadly not enough to save this mess from itself. While The Punisher has its moments, they are rather few and far between, leaving me no choice but to give the film five out of ten pistons.
And on that note, I’ll return to not watching films based on comic books.