The Punisher (2004) Review
There’s always been something special about Marvel’s Frank Castle. This comic book legend (created by Gerry Conway and made popular by Garth Ennis) never had special powers. He can’t leap from tall buildings, catch a bullet, or climb walls. He doesn’t possess sophisticated weaponry either, with only a souped-up truck and a collection of firearms to defend himself. And most importantly of all, he doesn’t wear a suit. No cape for him. Instead, he dons a dime store tee-shirt, emblazoned with a white skull - a symbol which has become more iconic than the comic itself. The Punisher was created in the 1970s, a time when revenge tales were the “hip” genre, and films like Death Wish filled theatres. It probably succeeded because it seemed so fresh. Castle is human, with nothing “super” about him. His only desire is revenge, and his methods scream with brutal excess. Conway had created a lethal killing machine; a direct contrast to the fantastical do-gooders that Stan Lee dished out on a regular basis. This amigo meant business.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. Director Mark Goldblatt offered his version of The Punisher in 1989 - a fairly low-budget picture that boasted plenty of action, but alienated fans by ignoring the source material (it didn’t even feature Castle’s skull tee-shirt, an unforgivable oversight.) Hammering the nail home, was the casting of Dolph Lundgren in the lead. Hardly known for his acting chops, he made the film hard to take seriously. Suffice to say, it could have been better. So imagine my delight when Jonathan Hensleigh revealed that his directorial debut would be a new version of Marvel’s toughest vigilante. They couldn’t screw up again, could they?
Well, yes and no actually. 2004’s adaptation also failed to excite cinema-goers, and was largely ignored at the box office. Hensleigh might have dropped the ball here or there, but in my opinion, The Punisher is a decent film, that didn’t deserve the critical bile it received. Fans should be pleased to hear that it retains many of the comic book elements they hold dear (based largely on Welcome Back Frank by Ennis, who goes uncredited.) As you’d expect from a Marvel property, the story is simple. With his days as an undercover agent finally behind him, Frank Castle (Tom Jane) reunites with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son (Marcus Johns), planning to live out their days in safety. But Frank doesn’t count on the intervention of crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) and his wife Livia (Laura Harring), who hold him responsible for the death of their son during a botched sting operation. The pair demand that Castle’s entire family is killed, an act which is soon carried out. But Castle survives the assassination attempt, and returns with revenge in mind...
Hensleigh is no stranger to action fare, having penned the screenplays for Die Hard With a Vengeance and Armageddon - films that didn’t skimp on pyrotechnic carnage. With these explosive blockbusters on his resume, you’d expect his work on The Punisher to be excess all areas. Unfortunately, his budget was extremely tight (yes, $30 million for a Hollywood action movie is tight.) With this in mind, the new Punisher isn’t quite in the same league, but it does provide a fairly faithful adaptation of Conway's popular creation, even if liberties have been taken. For instance, the film is set on the sun-drenched streets of Tampa, Florida - a far cry from the bustling metropolis of New York; Castle’s usual haunt. It provides plenty of beautiful locations for cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, but the gritty feel of NY might have been more appropriate. After all, Hensleigh and Hall have gone for an early 70’s style, and much of The Punisher feels like a throwback to such times. Hensleigh even states in his commentary, that his stylistic choices were very much a nod to the work of Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel - people who might have felt at home with Castle’s morality tale. The Punisher is a stripped-down exploitation movie, with a disturbingly dark centre.
In fact, it’s a little hard to ignore the repugnant streak running throughout the film. It’s so downbeat, with sporadic bursts of hard-hitting violence, that certainly deserve the 18 rating. The attack on Castle’s family is one such sequence, with cold-hearted brutality really taking hold - people are shot at point-blank range, one baddie is sent hurtling through the air while on fire, and Castle’s wife and child are mowed down by a truck; events which are given extra clout by Hall’s steady camerawork, and a sparse, almost silent score. And that’s all before Frank begins his revenge, picking off Saint’s lackeys one-by-one, as he inches closer to the man himself. It might be bearable if the characterisation wasn’t so thin. As a hero, Castle is difficult to sympathise with. Precious little time is spent on his character before the attack, and we never “know” him. For the remainder of the picture, Jane wears a permanent scowl, rarely showing compassion to anyone. Of course, this is “The Punisher” as seen in the comic, and my comments are no black mark against Jane’s performance. The actor does the best he can with such an anaemic script, trying to fill the void between grunts, and show real emotion. It also helps that he looks the part, having weight-trained to gain 25 pounds of muscle. In fact, he’s an imposing presence.
Clearly, Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France must have seen how unlikeable Castle was, and introduced a sub-plot involving the denizens of his scum-ridden apartment building. Waitress Joan (X-Men’s Rebecca Romign-Stamos), “Spacker” Dave (Ben Foster) and Bumpo (John Piette), try their best to welcome Castle with open arms, but he’s reluctant to join their ranks. His mission is the only thing he cares about, but in true cinematic cliché, he later realises the true value of friendship. It’s a poor ploy by the filmmakers, and it’s clear how dire the screenplay is, when the lead villain gets most of our respect. Travolta seems to be having fun as Saint, with a leisurely and restrained performance, that never resorts to the OTT theatrics of his Broken Arrow days. He’s a complex character, that shows devotion to his wife (a cold Laura Harring), grief for his son, and a lack of vicious cruelty (at least until the conclusion.) He doesn’t seem evil, and it was his wife that ordered the murder of Castle’s whole family, not him. In fact, the true villainy is left to the reliable Will Patton, who is convincing as Saint’s sadistic right-hand man.
What saves The Punisher (in my eyes at least), is some of the action sequences, which are lean, mean and efficient. Jane clearly loves firing those guns, and the actor bounds across the screen with gusto. With a limited budget, Hensleigh had no choice but to do everything the old-fashioned way. No optical effects, no CGI. Just stunt performers reacting to real explosions. The effect is a good one, providing an aura of realism amidst the gunplay. It gave me fond memories of those early 80’s action pictures, especially those in the Schwarzenegger cannon. It’s all derivative for sure, but Hensleigh knows how to stage the set pieces; especially the brilliant fight between Castle and hit man “The Russian” (wrestler Kevin Nash). It’s easily the best portion of the movie, as Nash throws Castle around his apartment, through walls, and down a flight of stairs. This skirmish is made all the more appealing, thanks to Hensleigh’s use of opera music, which plays in the next room. If only the rest of the film was so creative...
As the credits roll, it’s clear that The Punisher is a missed opportunity. It’s not big, and it definitely isn’t clever, but it offers enough thrills for a drunken Saturday night. Hensleigh’s first effort is destined for rental shelves everywhere (which is where it should stay really). Dark, moody and low on visceral thrills, it might not be enough for hard-core action fans, but provides a decent dose of comic book mayhem. Just remember: it’s better than Elektra.
Last year, The Punisher took ages to arrive in UK cinemas, so it's fitting that the DVD would follow quickly. Released by Lions Gate in the States, Columbia take the reigns here, for this above-average disc. Thankfully, it improves on the R1 release in several areas. But is it worth a purchase?
The Look and Sound
Visually, The Punisher is pretty impressive. Columbia give us the customary anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which handles the dark photography well. The film is mostly set at night, and the disc manipulates black levels and shadow with aplomb. The lighter scenes are clear too, with a significant lack of grain, and strong use of colour. It all looks well above-average, but it could have been sharper. I noticed some edge enhancement here and there, and the video is rather soft. That said, this is a great looking film, and Columbia improve on LG's grain-ridden disc.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't quite so strong, lacking depth and punch. Surrounds are used throughout, but not with any force. Thankfully, the dialogue is clear and the music vibrant, but the action sequences stand out. They were too low-key, with only the odd moment utilising deep bass. It's certainly not the loud and abrasive audio assault Columbia promised (especially since this is listed as an EX mix), but it manages to pass the test. Far from perfect, but Columbia have done the best they can with low-tech materials. A fine transfer overall.
Like the artwork (which is pretty disappointing), the menus make full use of the skull motif. The animation is basic, but pleasing to the eye, with the options scrawled in crude lettering, that fits The Punisher's style. They're pretty forgettable, but get the job done.
The extras from the R1 release are ported over, and there's a decent platter of materials for fans to savour.
Audio Commentary by Jonathan Hensleigh
As soon as the film begins, Hensleigh lets rip with facts and production insight, maintaining that momentum for the running time. There are a few spots of silence, but they don't last long. Hensleigh is an engaging commentator, describing The Punisher as "an exercise in economy." He details how he went about shooting the film on a such a tight budget, and the practical effects he was forced to use. He seems to be anti-CGI, something which I appreciated - there's far too much of it in Hollywood today. Surprisingly, he is quick to point-out many of the flaws raised by critics, offering valid arguments for decisions he made. With frequent references to the comic book, and some pleasing set details, Hensleigh's commentary is an entertaining diversion.
There are two present, with optional commentary by Hensleigh. The cut footage is nothing spectacular, but concerns lost plot points that were excised from the film entirely. There's no action, but the scenes are worth viewing at least once.
These are pretty lengthy, and go into surprising detail. The first is called "Keepin' It Real" (25 mins), and concentrates on The Punisher's stunts and action set-pieces. The crew is interviewed, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. Thomas Jane clearly did a lot of his own stunts, and there are several shots of him performing or training. Hensleigh also gets in on the action, confirming his need to achieve the action practically, with old-fashioned techniques. This is followed by "War Journal", which runs for around half an hour. It documents the film from pre-production meetings, right through to the finished product. Many of the principle filmmakers are interviewed, revealing that the project was carefully prepared and thought-out in great detail. It's a shame that such effort couldn't have resulted in a better film...
The disc concludes with a Drowning Pool music video, and the theatrical trailer. A neat package.
Do you remember the Schwarzenegger classic Commando? If so, did you like it? If the answer to that question is a resounding "yes", you'll probably find something to like about The Punisher. It's old-fashioned and very, very violent (ingredients that should have made it a hit.) As a comic book adaptation, it doesn't quite cut the mustard, but undemanding fans are sure to appreciate Hensleigh's flawed vision. Columbia's disc is good value for followers, but a rental is my recommendation here. Lets just hope that the sequel rumours are fan speculation, and nothing more...