Superhero films have become a major trend in the 21st Century, with Marvel and DC comic book properties being transformed into lavish CGI-driven blockbusters concerning fanciful protagonists. 2004’s The Punisher may be based on a Marvel character, yet this big-screen adventure is a far cry from the PG-13 antics of Spider-Man or X-Men. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, this is a vicious vigilante action film, closer to Dirty Harry and Death Wish than Fantastic Four. How refreshing it is to have a brutal anti-hero in this era of comic book do-gooders, and it’s nice to behold an R-rated Marvel movie punctuated with brutal action sequences that has the balls to be something other than family-safe eye candy. Although The Punisher underperformed at the box office (even despite its modest budget), it’s a cracker of a film. Fun, gritty and highly entertaining, it’s a satisfying actioner which deserves a wider audience.

A Gulf War veteran, Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is an undercover federal officer working on a case involving illegal guns. When the police move in to break up the deal, a fire-fight results in the death of Bobby Saint (James Carpinello), the son of mobster Howard Saint (John Travolta). When Howard learns of his son’s death, he vows revenge against Castle, sending his men to wipe out the officer’s entire family during a family reunion. Surviving the assault while the rest of his relatives, including his wife and child, are slaughtered, Castle spends several months recovering, and begins planning to dish out vigilante justice against Howard Saint. Building an arsenal, Castle begins to dispense punishment to those who wronged him with the help of his oddball neighbours (including Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and John Pinette).

The Punisher was the directorial debut for Hensleigh, who had carved a career for himself writing action movies like Die Hard With a Vengeance and Armageddon. Hensleigh worked on the script with Michael France, who co-wrote other Marvel films like Ang Lee’s Hulk and 2005’s Fantastic Four. Hensleigh’s experience in the action-adventure genre serves him well here, dialling down over-the-top superhero movie theatrics in favour of a more grounded big-screen adventure for Marvel’s brutal vigilante. Castle is from the “everyday heroes” mould like John McClane and Paul Kersey, as he’s portrayed as a mortal who bleeds and cares, and who relies on guts and brains to dispatch his enemies. Castle does not fly or spin webs, nor does he have the bank account of Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne. The only problem with Hensleigh’s film is that it baulks from being as relentlessly dark as its source material. I mean, a torture scene involves Popsicles, and Castle’s neighbours are played too broadly. The adaptation is enjoyable for what it is, but Hensleigh should have gone the whole hog. (See the 2012 short The Punisher: Dirty Laundry by Jane himself for a better cinematic representation of the character.)

Just as the titular character is the antithesis of his Marvel superhero counterparts, The Punisher is a different type of Marvel flick in terms of tone and technique. Hensleigh relied on practical effects as much as possible here, with little in the way of CGI. Hence, there are real stunts, real car crashes, real explosions, and practical blood squibs. The action sequences are all impressive here, coherently assembled and vehemently R-rated. Considering Hensleigh was reportedly working on a scant $33 million budget, The Punisher is quite an achievement, although even the filmmaker himself laments the fact that the production lacked suitable funds to make the movie all that it could have been.

One would imagine the likes of The Rock or Vin Diesel in the role of The Punisher, but Jane is an ideal pick. A huge fan of the character, Jane prepared extensively for the role, working out for several months to build muscle, and learning proper military firearms techniques. He nails the character’s stoic, badass demeanour, and he handles the character’s vulnerable side with ease. Travolta, meanwhile, hams it up as Howard Saint, with a scenery-chewing performance that wouldn’t look out of place in Dick Tracy. Digging into the supporting cast, Roy Scheider (Jaws) has a small part as Castle’s doomed father, and professional wrestler Kevin Nash also pops in for a vicious brawl that denotes one of the picture’s highlights.

There isn’t much originality or depth to The Punisher, not to mention the film is a little on the long side and perhaps there should’ve been more actual punishing. Nevertheless, this is a solid effort by all involved, and a badass revenge action film which easily provides a fun evening of popcorn entertainment. It’s a nicely-produced B-movie which plays out like a spaghetti western, or an 80s-era revenge action film that Charles Bronson or Arnold Schwarzenegger might have starred in. The definitive Punisher feature film has yet to be made, but this is a valiant effort.