Punisher, The (UK - BD RB)
Leigh Riding reviews the second incarnation of Frank Castle on Blu ray
Based upon the Marvel comic book series of the same name, this 2004 version chooses to ignore the events of the first Punisher film from 1989 (starring Dolph Lundgren in the title role), and reinvents the story of Frank Castle, a special agent left devastated by the death of his family at the hands of a large crime family run by Howard Saint. Castle assumes the persona of the Punisher, a figure who vows to wage bloody retribution upon the guilty parties. But will Castle be able to hang up his guns once he avenges his family?
The Punisher franchise is an unusual beast. It's the only series I can think of that has had as many reboots as there have been films, each time replacing the lead actor and reinventing the Punisher's origin. Originally played by Dolph Lundgren in 1989 and most recently in 2008 by Rome star Ray Stevenson, this second attempt at introducing the Frank Castle character courtesy of Thomas Jane veers away from the original source material the most. While this may be of little interest to anybody aside from the Punisher devotees, there is a softening touch that damages the credibility of Castle, possibly one of the most interesting and complex characters in the Marvel roster.
If one were to view the films in some form of unofficial order, conventional Punisher fan wisdom suggests that this version is the origin story explaining how grief pushes Frank over the edge, Punisher: War Zone the second part with the war in full bloody effect, and the Lundgren version the last entry, with a hollow Castle realising that his five year reign is having devastating ramifications. This means Thomas Jane does the heaviest lifting character-wise of the three. Jane makes a good Punisher, but unfortunately Castle's established origin and arc is poorly mapped out by writer/director Johnathan Hensleigh, who botches the conception of the character so badly, one wonders if he actually read the comic books at all.
Seeing as the concept of Frank Castle is that he lives in a grey area of being even more uncompromising, blunt and brutal than the villains that he is dispatching, it's rather an odd choice for Hensleigh to have Castle creating a very complicated and elaborate Yojimbo style plan of pitting his opponents against one another, letting them do Castle's dirty work for him, and then mop up the strays when the dust settles. Sorry, but that's wrong. It might not be where Hensleigh and Jane wanted to go, but the point of the The Punisher is that it's supposed to be a bloody, vicious massacre, and every murder Castle commits takes him further away from the man he used to be. It's a horrendous own goal for fans of the character.
That's not to say that Thomas Jane is bad as the Punisher, as while Dolph Lundgren is closest in spirit and execution to the books and Ray Stevenson is the closest visually (looking incredibly similar to the Garth Ennis/Tim Bradstreet incarnation of Castle), Jane gives the strongest performance of the three Castles. On the other hand, John Travolta is surprisingly weak as Saint. He's always played great action movie villains, but in this he simply seems bored. When the only interesting thing about your main baddie is the fact that he smokes a pipe, you know Travolta's collecting a paycheque. Having said that, the supporting actors are strong, particularly Will Patton and oddball character actor Ben Foster in an unrecognisable role.
Although Hensleigh bodged the script, there's no faulting the direction. For a relatively low budget film, it looks fantastic, and he shoots the action scenes with aplomb, most notably the opening beach scene and the final siege. However, the action is rather thin on the ground. Aside from a half-arsed car crash, there are only three action sequences in the whole film, which is rather unfortunate for a comic book movie like this. Mind you, when one of these scenes is the semi-classic apartment brawl, then I'm a bit more forgiving.
Looking at the franchise in general, this is definitely the best of the three in filmmaking quality, with the 1989 version being low budget, but the closest in spirit, and the 2008 version resembling the Punisher Max era and featuring some amazingly designed action, but with some absolutely atrocious acting and direction. When considering Punisher canon, fans will be pretty disappointed with the plot, but those not terribly interested in comic book continuity will find a solid vigilante actioner.
The 1080p 2.35:1 image is a noticeable improvement over the standard DVD version. For a second-tier back catalogue title, there has been quite a lot of effort put into bringing up the sharpness and detail and fine tuning the image, even more so given that the UK standard release from Sony was rather inferior to the US Lionsgate print. Colours are nice and rich with no bleed, black levels are very strong, and there is no evidence of grain even in night time sequences.
The film deals with multiple textures, from the crusty grime of Castle's apartment to the steely textures of the Saint offices in the final action sequences, and all are handled very well. The Punisher is a film filled with money shots, and iconic images such as Castle wielding a bow and arrow are buffed to a high sheen. A nicer transfer than I was expecting.
Sony offer a quietly impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that kicks when it needs to and stays quiet when it should. Dialogue is upfront, nice and clear, the action sequences kicked my rear with some superb use of gunfire rumbling around the sounds. Fistfights are guaranteed to make you wince, and the low end is cracking stuff, with some outrageously rocking explosions.
Special mention must go to the score, with the classical music used throughout the fight with the Russian sitting perfectly in the mix, and the acoustic serenade from Harry Heck really pings around the room. This is the best that The Punisher is going to sound.
First up is an engaging commentary from the director, which is always interesting, and Hensleigh is quick to point out failings, which is quite refreshing. Input from Jane would have been nice, mind.
There is a decent raft of standard definition extras available. ‘War Journal: Making of The Punisher’ is a surprisingly thorough thirty minute documentary looking at the production from the (rather tense) first production meeting through to the release of the film, and is rather packed considering the runtime.
‘Drawing Blood Bradstreet Style’ is an interview with Tim Bradstreet, who created the artwork for many a classic Punisher book, and he talks about his work crating the amazing promotional posters for the film. It's a shame that the UK gets saddled with the abysmal cover from the old DVD instead of one of his superb pieces.
‘Keeping it Real: Stunts of The Punisher’ is another decent doc, again running for thirty minutes and focussing upon the CGI free action sequences in good detail.
Also added to the disc (for the first time in the UK) is the animated Kuwait opening sequence from the region one Director's cut DVD. Essentially animated storyboards with Castle voiced by Jane, it's an interesting watch, but please note that despite containing the alternate opening sequence from the director's cut edition, the feature itself is in fact the theatrical cut of the film. There are also two rather brief deleted scenes, which is frustrating considering the doc refers to a two and a half hour cut of The Punisher, and some of the scenes are glimpsed in the feature. Lastly we have the video for Drowning Pool's always hideous song from the credits. In all, a good set.
Despite my negative views on the deviations from the source material, I can't deny the fact that this is still a sturdy little revenge actioner. People new to the character and the franchise will get a far more interesting character based action movie than the synopsis on the box might suggest, and should definitely not be dissuaded by my frothing fanboy rantings. Even existing fans of the film should consider upgrading from standard def, considering the better than expected polishing of the content on this disc. The Punisher is definitely worth a look.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 9th February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Audio Description 5.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 French, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: Arabic, Danish, Dutch, English, English HoH, Finnish, French, Hindi, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Alternate Opening Sequence, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Drowning Pool 'Step Up' Music Video, BD-Live
Easter Egg: No
Director: Johnathan Hensleigh
Cast: John Travolta, Thomas Jane, Rebecca Romijn, Will Patton, Ben Foster
Length: 123 minutes
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