Back in 2004, Marvel were busy making comic-book movies left and right, releasing about two to three superhero films a year on average. Along with Spider-Man 2 and Blade: Trinity, the same year we also got the reboot of The Punisher starring Thomas Jane as anti-hero Frank Castle.
A complete departure from the late 80's Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, this was meant to bring the character to a wider audience telling his origin story and showing his arc from war hero to revenge-thirsty vigilante. With John Travolta cast as the villain Howard Saint, the mob boss who orders the death of Castle's entire family following an undercover job leading to Saint's son's death. With everyone he cared about gone and himself left for dead, Frank Castle regroups in an out-of-the-way tenement and starts to shoot his way through Saint's men before accepting his new life as The Punisher. This all sounds potentially exciting and packed full of good old-fashioned violence and yet Marvel could not have made a duller Punisher if they'd tried.
The first 25 minutes are particularly heavy-going as we spend entirely too long with Castle's family setting up a frankly shallow plot which could have been kick-started within the first 5-10 minutes. Then Saint proves himself to be one of the most forgettable villains in Marvel movies, despite Travolta's occasional outbursts, and the side comic-relief characters (including Kevin Nash's cartoonish Russian) are given way too much screen-time and ultimately feel irrelevant since they only serve to add humanity to Castle's character when he should be slowly turning into an anti-social recluse. Thomas Jane does a generally ok job and he wears that iconic skull T-shirt well but he is much too nice a guy here to be a convincing Punisher, a role Jon Bernthal has already effortlessly nailed in the current Daredevil series. You just don't buy that Jane's Punisher would go on such a murderous rampage.
I'll give Marvel that, they at least let The Punisher be R-rated, the way it should be. If only the film had been more entertaining, darker and felt more like a comic-book movie rather than a straight-to-video B-movie that just happens to be based on a comic. As it stands there's really little reason to give this Punisher a go as it's nowhere near as fun as the 1989 effort or the reboot that followed.
Even Stan Lee couldn't be bothered to pop in for a cameo, and that guy's everywhere!