Lionsgate // 2004 // 140 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // December 18th, 2006
This is not revenge. It's punishment.
One of the darkest and most violent figures in mainstream comic book lore, The Punisher roared onto the screen in 2004 hampered by budgetary and time restrictions. The resulting film did fairly well considering its budget, but didn't completely live up to the expectations of its director, investors, or audiences.
Now first-time writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (writer of Armageddon, The Saint, and Die Hard With A Vengeance) has animated an opening sequence that he didn't have the money to shoot, and subsequently restored an entire storyline to his film, adding about 17 minutes.
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, Boogie Nights) is one tough hombre, an undercover FBI agent who's seen it all, and has finally reached a point where he can retire from the tough assignments, moving to London with his family for a desk job. But when Howard Saint's (John Travolta, Face/Off) son is killed during Castle's last assignment, Saint exacts a ruthless form of vengeance, killing Frank's entire family and seriously wounding him.
Castle survives, and reinvents himself as "The Punisher," a one-man killing machine whose sole mission is to punish those responsible for his family's death. Castle stockpiles weapons, modifies a car, and prepares for a war against Saint and his henchman, including the sadistic Quentin Glass (Will Patton, Armageddon). But Frank discovers he can't always go it alone, and ends up relying on the help of a trio of misfits in his apartment building, played by Rebecca Romjin (X-Men), Ben Foster (Hostage), and John Pinette (Duets).
On the commentary and behind-the-scenes material of the original DVD release, director Hensleigh admits that his film didn't have the budget it needed to be all it could have been. Considering it was made for only $15 million, the movie is quite an achievement, but one major omission was the much-talked-about opening sequence set during the Iraq war.
Now we finally get to see that sequence, and while I was somewhat disappointed by what it turned out to be, I really enjoyed the additional storyline that's been weaved into the feature. An act of heroism on Frank's part sets up a strong bond between himself and fellow soldier Weeks (Russell Andrews, The In-Laws) that carries into present day when both are in law enforcement. But Weeks has a gambling problem, and when Howard Saint exploits his weakness to garner information that leads to the execution of Frank's family, we just know Frank will make him regret it. It's a very strong, very dark counterpoint to the main thrust of the picture, and while I can see why it was excised, as it has almost no impact on the plot, the movie now feels richer. Seeing Frank interacting with someone from his past gives us an indication of how much he has changed, and at the same time reminds us that he's still human.
It's intriguing that Howard Saint is simply exacting revenge, "punishment" if you will, for the death of his son by killing Frank's entire family (conveniently together for a family reunion), but by doing so he is cemented as the picture's villain. Yet The Punisher is essentially doing the same thing and he's the hero. A bit of moral ambiguity here gives the viewer something to chew on.
Mostly, though, this is a good old-fashioned analogue action movie, complete with obvious fire suits for the stuntmen running around ablaze, clearly visible cannons on the bottom of cars that twirl into the air, and plenty of scenery chewed up by machine gun fire. It feels very much like something out of the 80s (although it mercifully doesn't resemble the Dolph Lundgren/Louis Gossett Jr. atrocity of the same name), something that could have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and been filled with bad one-liners. The guns are fetishized, the acting vacillates between tough and melodramatic, and the seamlessness of the special effects takes a back seat to making a bigger explosion.
Thomas Jane is The Punisher, and I look forward to seeing what he does with the character in the rumored sequel. He seems to be taking the proceeding more seriously than anyone, and sells every line, no matter how ridiculous. From the bulked-up physique to the black hair, Jane is committed to bringing the best version of Frank Castle to the screen that he can.
Travolta is probably better in this than he's been in a few years, relishing the bad guy dialogue and over-the-top histrionics. There's not that much to his character, but he's always an emotionally complex and unpredictable fellow. Will Patton (Armageddon), too, stands out with his sheer capacity for violence.
The picture quality seems about the same as the previous DVD release, clean and crisp, no complaints. But even if you're not interested in the additional footage, upgrading is worthwhile because of this disc's DTS-ES track. While the Dolby Digital EX audio is aggressive, with lots of low end and plenty of action from all speakers, the 6.1 goodness of DTS sounds more transparent and more open, as if the effects have room to breathe. Bass is more natural, and the highs are crisper. This is a superb audio presentation.
Not a lot by way of special features here: we've got the animated opening scene on its own, a short "making-of" featurette dealing almost exclusively with this scene, and a comic book gallery detailing The Punisher throughout the years. The latter feature is probably the most appealing for fans of the comic, but seeing how the animation for the opening sequence was created is pretty entertaining as well.
The Achilles' Heel of this picture is tone: it just doesn't know if it wants to be really serious, or kind of campy. The more serious elements come across the best, especially in scenes between Travolta and Jane, both of whom appear to have the clearest idea of what the movie should be. But interspersed throughout are bits of comic relief that can undo the tension built up before. This is most apparent in scenes with Castle's neighbors, who were probably less annoying in the comic, but are easily the weakest link in the film.
That said, the music isn't doing anyone any favors either. While I absolutely love the main theme for The Punisher, which is as evocative as themes in X-Men and Spider-Man, the rest of the time it's an over-the-top jumble of melodramatic cues that wouldn't be out of place in a Joey Lawrence made-for-cable flick.
Finally, I would've liked some additional special features, maybe a new audio commentary or two, maybe a longer documentary. The re-release would have been a good opportunity to make a definitive set, but this is not it.
If you like action movies, and have a special place in your heart for pictures like Commando, you'll love this movie. Now with an additional 17 minutes, it's definitely worth your time if the premise appeals to you at all.
Since the accused is already busy handing out sentences, I think I'll leave him alone.
Review content copyright © 2006 Daniel MacDonald; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Animated Kuwait Deleted Scene
* Comic Book Gallery
* "Making Of" Featurette