Dash Versus…The Punisher(1989) vs. The Punisher(2004) vs. Punisher: War Zone

Hey kids, Dash Jordan here. Today, we’re gonna do something a little differently. I know I said before that I may create a new segment dedicated to TV Shows, but then I decided to change my mind.

Sorry Doc…but I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Now, all of you may remember when I talked about the upcoming second season of ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’, which will be streaming on Netflix tomorrow. As some of you may also know, I’m truly excited because we’ll be seeing the return of my all-time favorite comic-book vigilante, Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher.

Seriously, I friggin’ love this character and I can’t wait to see how Jon Bernthal plays him. Until then, however, there are still three films based on this iconic badass. One from 1989 starring Dolph Lundgren.

A reboot from 2004 starring Thomas Jane.

Then finally, another reboot from 2008 starring Ray Stevenson.

   So, I just have one question for my fellow Punisher fans…which movie was better? Who played Frank Castle the best? Which movie did better justice to the comics? Well, that’s where I come in. Personally, and I know I’m in the minority on this…but I actually enjoy all three films. I think all three did a pretty good job at capturing the spirit of the comics; in their own unique way, of course. Today, we’re gonna find out which of these action films are the best and the worst. Without further ado…

Round 1: Origin

   In the comics, Frank Castle was a NYC cop who was left for dead after mobsters executed his wife and children in Central Park. It was on that day where Frank Castle died and became the The Punisher; using his vast collection of weapons and military training to mow down every last criminal on Earth. To be fair, all three films managed to capture that basic idea. Detailing Frank Castle’s origin, on the other hand, is a different story. In both the 1989 version and in ‘Punisher: War Zone’, the titular anti-hero is already an established character and his origin is only briefly touched upon through exposition or flashbacks. While the 2004 version actually shows us Castle’s loss of his family and his transformation; with only a few major differences which I will talk about later.

Much like Batman or Spiderman, this is a comic-book origin that even non-readers are familiar with. So, it’s understandable that they don’t show much of The Punisher’s origin. However, I would have to say that only two of these movies did a better job at handling this aspect; the 2004 version for its pacing and emotion and ‘War Zone’ for staying true to the roots of the comics, and having it take place during a family picnic in Central Park.

While ‘War Zone’ may have had an origin that was closer to the comics, I have to admit that it was the 2004 version that had the emotion, depth and sadness; making this version the definitive origin tale as of right now. With that said, Round 1 goes to the 2004 version.

The Punisher(1989)-zero / The Punisher(2004)-1 / Punisher: War Zone-zero

Round 2: Story

   In the 1989 version, its because of The Punisher’s actions that the Yakuza comes to town to wipe out the rest of the Mafia and take over the criminal underworld. They do this by kidnapping the children of the crime bosses. It’s this struggle that makes for a good Punisher story, as it leaves you thinking whether or not The Punisher has actually done more harm for the innocent than good. The criminals may be guilty, but the children should not be judged by the sins of their parents.

I’ve mentioned before that the 2004 film is an origin story, but there is a lot more to it. Trust me, this version is more than just Frank Castle going around shooting scumbags in the face. You see all of the anguish that the main character goes through during his journey. But, instead of the generic action, we actually see this Punisher setting things in motion. Slowly and methodically destroying the main villain’s criminal empire, helping the people around him and only occasionally getting thrown in action scenes. In fact, this film actually pays some homage to Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film, ‘Yojimbo’; a film about rival gangs fighting for control over a small town, until a wandering samurai comes along and manipulates the crime bosses and pits them against each other. Quite the change from the usual high-octane action we were expecting from this movie. But for the most part, the real heart of the story is seeing Castle’s inner turmoil.

‘War Zone’, on the other hand, does the complete opposite of what its predecessor tried to do. This version sees The Punisher contemplating retirement after accidentally killing an undercover agent, and protecting that agent’s family. But, the real story is about Frank Castle going up against one of his greatest foes from the comics, the hideously scarred and psychotic crime boss, Jigsaw.

In all honestly, I actually like these stories. Even if some elements may not have been executed right, they all have their bright spots, in my opinion. The stories for these movies can either make for decent Punisher comics, or have been based on some of the best stories from the comics. It’s The Punisher, not Othello. So don’t expect high-art or anything. I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of crap for this, but I’m gonna have to make this a three-way tie.

The Punisher(1989)-1 / The Punisher(2004)-2 / Punisher: War Zone-1

Round 3: Overall Style & Tone

All three movies have their own unique style which I actually like to a certain degree. The 1989 film is no different from any hard-R action flicks from the 80s & 90s. To be fair, however, the comics were pretty similar to all of those exploitative action films. Most people will complain that Dolph Lundgren doesn’t even wear the signature white skull on his shirt. While jarring at times, it doesn’t take away from the grit and cheesiness of the 80s.

In 2004, we got a Punisher movie that looked a bit cleaner. Not to say that this film didn’t have its darkness. Despite looking a little brighter than the other film, it still shrouded in shadows and muted colors which blends perfectly with the film’s tone. This version of The Punisher is definitely one of the more depressing and realistic adaptations of the character and his world, clearly taking inspiration from some of the comic stories written by Garth Ennis. Great stories, by the way.

Moving away from the more realistic and/or gritty feel of the first two movies, ‘War Zone’ has a dirty yet polished look. It focuses more on bright and vibrant colors, almost like a comic book. The film itself, however, acts as more of a tongue-in-cheek action romp that relies heavily on gratuitous violence and cartoon-esque humor. Which works sometimes, but fails most of the time.

This one is a bit of a toss-up. The first two films are both gritty action flicks. While the 1989 version focused more on the action, the 2004 reboot captures all of the emotion. Then there’s ‘War Zone’, while campy to the point of borderline-parody, it has all of the blood, gore and carnage from the comics that the other films were sort of missing. I’m sorry but I’m gonna have to make this another tie. All three films capture the spirit of comics in their own way. Rumor has it that if Jon Bernthal’s time on ‘Daredevil’ is successful, he may get his own spinoff series or movie. If or when that happens, maybe we’ll finally see a new spin on the character that combines all of those elements. Until then, the 1989 version, the 2004 version & ‘War Zone’ each get points.

The Punisher(1989)-2 / The Punisher(2004)-3 / Punisher: War Zone-2

Round 4: Supporting Cast

Right now, it look as if the 1989 version is the underdog. However, while the majority of the supporting cast may be forgettable, there is one character that has always been praised by most people. That would be the character of Jake Berkowitz, played by Louis Gossett, Jr. Even in some of his bad movies, Gossett, Jr. has always delivered a memorable performance and this movie is no exception. Jake Berkowitz was Frank Castle’s old partner who ironically has been trying to track down The Punisher for years. You can only imagine how much pain this character goes through when he finally confronts his old friend. In fact, it’s the best part of the movie.

The 2004 version had a lot more characters for us to care about, played by great and recognizable actors. Including Samantha Mathis as Frank’s wife, Maria. You also have Rebecca Romijn as Joan and Ben Foster as Spacker Dave, respectively. They were all fantastic.

Out of all of the supporting characters in ‘War Zone’, there was only two I really caring about. Partly because they were played by really good actors who managed to carry the film along with Ray Stevenson. First, I would just like to say…FINALLY, they included Microchip & Soap! Microchip is Frank Castle’s partner who helps him with his gadgets, armor and weapons. Personally, I hope that whoever was in charge of casting for this movie got a huge pay raise. Because the casting of Wayne Knight as Microchip was perfect and made me excited to see the film. Then there’s Detective Martin Soap. Behind the nervous exterior, Soap is probably one of the last few good cops in New York who’s in charge of the Punisher Task Force; despite helping The Punisher out on numerous occasions and even befriending him. Dash Mihok does a superb job at playing him…wait, what’s his name?!? Awesome!

Tough call…Louis Gossett, Jr. was awesome, and I do admire the fact that they got two great actors to play two iconic characters from the comics, but I’m gonna have to give this point to the 2004 version. It was interesting to see Castle’s family, as well as characters who were not only featured in the comics, but also serve their purpose to the film by adding some much-needed light to an otherwise dark action film.

The Punisher(1989)-2 / The Punisher(2004)-4 / Punisher: War Zone-2

Round 5: Villains

Let’s be honest, seeing The Punisher shoot down small-time criminals, wiseguys & ninjas was about to get boring sometime soon. Which is why they soon came up with some pretty creative bad guys for the comics, even borrowing a few recognizable faces from other Marvel Comics. So, who’ve we got for the movies? In the 1989 film, there are two main villains. Gianni Franco(played by Jeroen Krabbé) & Lady Tanaka(played by Kim Miyori)…neither of them were from the comics. I know, what gives? To be fair, however, these characters are based on similar characters and are portrayed in a way where they probably could exist in that franchise. Franco is an interesting character, especially when he talks The Punisher in teaming up with him to save his son. While Lady Tanaka is your classic mysterious and evil villainess who loves what she does and actually comes off as a legitimate threat.

Then you have the 2004’s villain; Howard Saint(played by John Travolta)…interesting choice. Look, say what you will about his personal life, but he’s a decent actor. When I heard he was going to be cast in this movie, I was actually hoping for something like his other villainous roles; like Vincent Vega from ‘Pulp Fiction’, Gabriel Shear from ‘Swordfish’ or better yet, his turn as Castor Troy from ‘Face/Off’. Instead, we get a villain who’s just passable. Meanwhile, the other bad guys in the film who work for Howard Saint, I got more of a threatening presence from them then I did from the main villain of the film. Not a bad performance, in fact it’s a good performance…but it’s John Travolta, it could’ve been so much more. Speaking of other bad guys, we did get one recurring villain from the comics; The Russian(played by pro-wrestler Kevin Nash). What we end up getting is probably one of the coolest and funniest fights ever put on film. Oh, and before any wrestling fans ask…no, Diesel does not tear his quad in this movie.

Now, let’s move on with the villains of ‘War Zone’. As I’ve mentioned before, the main villain of this movie is Jigsaw. As a fan, I was excited to see them finally tackle one of The Punisher’s greatest archenemies. Especially, when I’ve heard good things about Dominic West as an actor. Once again, I’m in the minority…but I actually liked Dominic West’s performance as Jigsaw. West plays Jigsaw as a vicious, crazy, self-absorbed, hot-headed Italian mobster. Can he get silly at times? Sure. But remember, this is essentially a Mafia stereotype and is a perfect villain for this movie. The same can not be said for the character of Loony Bin Jim. He was not played well, he’s not Jigsaw’s brother, he wasn’t even from the comics and there was no need for him.

Quite the controversial choice. Again, the acting from the 2004 version is superb. However, while the villains in that version are handled slightly better than the 1989 version, it’s not really as memorable as Jigsaw. I’m sorry, but it was a treat to finally see The Punisher’s greatest recurring enemy on the big screen. Even if it didn’t pay off as well as it should during that final fight. If you seen the movie, then you know what I mean. However, I do give credit for at least putting up more of a fight than the other villains. Sorry, but the point’s gonna have to go to ‘War Zone’.

The Punisher(1989)-2 / The Punisher(2004)-4 / Punisher: War Zone-3

Round 6: Faithfulness To The Source Material

All three films are quite close to the comics, in their own right. While the 2004 version may be slightly closer in terms of emotion…there has always been two things that has always confused me. First, Frank Castle doesn’t lose his wife and children at a family picnic in Central Park. Instead, he loses his whole family…at a family reunion…in the Bahamas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a hard moment to watch, it’s filmed well, the music is thrilling and sad when it has to be. But, it’s just a little confusing. Second, why does it take place in Tampa Bay?!? I’m not saying The Punisher can’t travel, but the comics have always primarily taken place in New York. I’m sorry but this has always bugged me. There’s a reason why The Punisher fights crime in New York, there’s a reason why Batman lives in Gotham City and not Metropolis, there’s a reason why ‘The Crow’ and ‘Robocop’ takes place in Detroit. When I think of a dirty, dangerous, crime-ridden city, I DON’T THINK TAMPA BAY!!!

I hate to sound like a raging fanboy, but its just very jarring to me. Not enough to take away everything good the film has going for it, but its still hard not to notice. With that said, I’ll be giving points to the 1989 film and ‘War Zone’ for sticking to their roots.

The Punisher(1989)-3 / The Punisher(2004)-4 / Punisher: War Zone-4

Final Round: Best Punisher

Well, it finally all comes down to this. Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane & Ray Stevenson. Which actor played Frank Castle the best? Well, let’s look at what each actor has to offer. First up, we have Dolph Lundgren. Most of you may remember him as Ivan Drago from ‘Rocky 4’ and Gunner Jensen from the ‘Expendables’ film series. However, I think I can safely say that ‘The Punisher’ is probably his best role. Unlike that “other” 80s icon he played.

Ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the skull on his shirt for just one minute…Dolph Lundgren still looks like how Frank Castle would look from the 80s, and he actually does a surprisingly good job capturing the emptiness of the character. He’s a cold, quiet, emotionless sociopath. I don’t understand why some people hate on Lundgren’s performance. Just because your an Action Star doesn’t mean you can’t act.

Thomas Jane plays the The Punisher as a broken man with nothing left to lose. He’s completely given up on life, society and the system. Speaking of the system, he actually gives the justice system a chance at first. Once he realizes that the law was not gonna do anything while Howard Saint’s crime family continue to roam free and that his family would never be avenged, that’s when he finally decides to intervene and take the law into his own hands. Jane worked his ass off for this role; from studying the comics to going through actual military training. Now THAT’S dedication!

Finally, there’s Ray Stevenson. Much like Lundgren, he looks the most like the Frank Castle we know from the comics. While he also plays The Punisher as very stoic and cold, I personally feels he’s the most angry and blood-thirsty of the three actors. Also, is it just me or does he seem a little too indestructible in some moments.

Hmm…surprisingly a tough choice. Which would you guys prefer? The emotionless action hero, the detached war hero or the violent superhero? For me, I’m gonna have to say Thomas Jane is my pick for the best Punisher. While Lundgren and Stevenson are good actors who added their own unique quirks to such a complex character, it’s Jane who truly embodied what makes The Punisher so awesome. So, the winner of this round is Thomas Jane as the superior Frank Castle.

The Punisher(1989)-3 / The Punisher(2004)-5 / Punisher: War Zone-4

WINNER: The Punisher(2004)

   Well, there you have it. Your reigning champion, the 2004 version of ‘The Punisher’. Now keep in mind, that does not mean that the other two films are bad…or at least not as bad as some people make it out to be. People are always trying to figure out which of those to movie are worse, but their both decently made adaptations that capture the tone and spirit of The Punisher. It’s just that they both have ways of achieving that goal. With that said, if you’re looking for an obscure 80s action flick, then go check out the 1989 version. If you’re looking for a stupid dumb romp to laugh at with your friends, then go rent ‘War Zone’. Simple as that! Oh, but we’re not done with these crime-ridden streets just yet. There’s one movie that still has hell to pay…

Until then, Gotta Dash!

1989 Rating-6/10

2004 Rating-7.5/10

‘War Zone’ Rating-6.5/10

Written by Shane Moose

Videos & Photos:

All comic book images are owned by Marvel Comics

The Punisher(1989)(owned by Live Entertainment & New World Pictures)

The Punisher(2004)(owned by Lionsgate, Artisan Entertainment, Marvel Entertainment & Valhalla Motion Pictures)

Punisher: War Zone(owned by Lionsgate, Marvel Studios & Valhalla Motion Pictures)

Doctor Who(owned by BBC)

WCW(owned by WWE)

Masters Of The Universe(owned by Canon Films & Golan-Globus)

Daredevil(2003)(owned by 20th Century Fox, Marvel Enterprises, Regency Enterprises & Horseshoe Bay Productions)

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