Judge David Johnson wonders who would in a fight between Dolph Lundgren and...oh who are we kidding? Dolph in three seconds flat.
Our reviews of The Punisher (1989) (published August 21st, 1999), The Punisher (2004) (Blu-ray) (published October 12th, 2011), and The Punisher (2004) Extended Cut (published December 18th, 2006) are also available.
"This isn't vengeance. This is punishment."
Riding the Marvel wave, Lions Gate enters the comic book crapshoot with this big-screen translation of one of mainstream comics' most morally ambiguous, prone-to-violence anti-heroes. When the movie was unleashed, it was punished with poor reviews and poor attendance. It arrives onto DVD, guns blazing, and the question is: will it hit the spot for action junkies, or are the recipients of punishment your brain cells?
Facts of the Case
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, Deep Blue Sea) is putting the finishing touches on a stellar stint as a top undercover police officer. His final bust scores him a major arms deal and a few dead bodies. Unfortunately, one of the stiffs is the youngest son of Howard Saint (John Travolta, Broken Arrow), a filthy rich industrialist with some money-laundering schemes on the side. Infused with vengeance, Saint and his wife instruct heir henchmen to massacre all of Castle's family.
A family reunion in Puerto Rico becomes the venue for the bloodbath, and Frank must endure the brutal deaths of all of his loved ones—culminating in the slaying of his wife and daughter. The thugs shoot Frank and leave him for dead before igniting a nice inconspicuous fireball.
Well, turns out these hired guns were sick the day they taught "Check Your Victim's Pulse Stupid!" at Goon School, and Castle narrowly eludes death. Sans his family, he now has a deep abyss inside himself to cope with, a maw he can only fill with dead bodies.
With the Saint empire in his sights, Castle aligns himself with traitors within Saint's organization, manipulates scenarios to weave distrust within the family, sticks up for some loser apartment neighbors, and avoids assassination attempts.
Meanwhile, he sits around bare-chested and drinks liquor and cocks all of his guns over and over and over. With Castle meddling, Saint panics and sends out the top hitmen money can buy, including a guitar-strumming trash-talker and a hulking blond Russian with an affinity for smashing through load-bearing walls.
But these jackasses are merely speed bumps on the slow road to revenge. Howard Saint and all he adores are in The Punisher's crosshairs, and the guy has a lot of guns.
Let's get this out of the way right now. The Punisher is a mediocre movie, a good action film, and it's certainly not the kind of comic book flick we've grown accustomed to. I've decided to separate the "action movie" from the "movie," because, alas, most fun action movies share little in common with great slices of cinematic art—for instance, I sure had fun with Passenger 57, but celluloid greatness it ain't.
The Punisher was pretty much lambasted by critics and harpooned by Internet geeks. But my brother liked it, so I went in with even expectations. When the final credits rolled, I compiled my reactions, and here they are:
Okay, let's start off with the flick's good points. In this era of age-appropriate, most-bang-for-your-buck, get-those-junior-highers-in-the-seats PG-13 sludge, it was a blast from the retro-action past to get a graphic, violent, show-it-all movie rather than boiled-down action fare. And to base it on a comic-book hero, where films of this ilk are generally characterized by big bright colors and cartoonish violence, and a hero whose power is shooting people until they die no less, takes some cajones.
The Punisher indeed makes its R-rating count. For example: there's the opening family killing spree, with innocents getting shot in the back and mowed down with automatic gunfire, or the spurting arterial blood from the knife in the throat, or arrows through the neck, or the brief glimpse of bare breasts (!), or a paper-cutter to the head (!!), or burning oil to the face followed by flesh sloughing off (!!!), or, my personal favorite, a knife up through the chin, into the mouth, in front of the teeth (?!!) You hearing me kids? This is not you typical comic book movie. In fact, I can't remember the last mainstream action flick I saw as violent as this.
Director Jonathan Hensleigh, in his director commentary and on record in the making-of documentaries, stressed his focus on real special effects with minimal interference from CGI. This is a man after my own heart, and I duly appreciate his effort. The car crashes are real, the explosions are (for the most part) real, and the violence is squib and blood pack-oriented.
Lastly, for all potential gripes out there about the movie's content, Thomas Jane is frickin' Frank Castle. I thought this guy was cool in Deep Blue Sea and I hope he has a potent action career ahead of him. He has the build and the looks and the dark, brooding attitude, and he carried himself handily in the combat (most of which, apparently, he did himself).
Clocking in over two hours, The Punisher is certainly mean, but he ain't too lean. These lengthy comic book flicks usually mean we're dealing with an origin story, and that's what The Punisher is. But be prepared to wait 40 minutes before the punishment begins.
My biggest gripe with the flick is it's pretty damn tedious. The pacing of the film really flags; it's a "thrill trek." While the action that is present is pretty good, it's too sparse, especially considering the amount if exposition the viewer needs to wade through. The big fight with the Russian is nice and long, but a little sullied by the use of the opera soundtrack as a way to add some forced mirth.
Finally, the film is plagued with typical action flick logic gaffes. Why does Castle labor over creating a GTO Assault Vehicle with all kinds of gadgets that we never see in action? Oh wait, it crashes. Then there are the constant snafus by villains, yakking away or taunting The Punisher, long enough for him to drum a last-ditch creative way to dispatch them.
"Ha! What chance do you have with a knife against my gun-aauughh!" (paraphrased)
And if the bad guys know where their nemesis lives, why not just wait until he's asleep or on the can, then run in and shoot him, instead of blowing money on idiosyncratic assassins who talk too much?
This may be the first Lions Gate disc where I've been pleased by the presentation. The Punisher receives a real spiffy widescreen transfer. The movie is pretty much nonstop dreariness, but the picture holds up well. The audio is fairly strong, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, though I would have enjoyed a more aggressive use of the surrounds. It is loud and with a competent system, the explosions should rock the house.
The disc fires off a hefty amount of bonus materials. First, you get four featurettes—"Keepin it Real: Punisher Stunts" spotlights the non-CGI mayhem, "War Journal" is a great little on-the-set look of the movie, "Army of One" brings on Marvel big-wigs to talk about the origins of the comic book, and "Drawing Blood Bradstreet Style" highlights the impressive artwork of artist Tim Bradstreet.
Hensleigh in his documentary footage and his commentary track is insightful and honest, often lamenting the restrictions of a small budget ($28 million, peanuts by Hollywood action-fest standards) while lauding everyone involved in pulling the movie off. Two forgettable deleted scenes and a disposable music video bat clean-up.
Another uneven comic book offering, The Punisher fails to move or shake, though its dedication to nuts and bolts to the action craft is applauded.
A mixed bag of ammo this is. The court thanks the accused for its helpings of street violence, but will pass judgment after a nap, because the movie's just too stultifying for its own good.
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Scales of Justice
• "War Journal: On the Set of The Punisher"
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