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Way back when a character named Frank Castle made his first appearance in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129. Castle's family was mowed down by the mob in New York City and he took it upon himself to 'punish' all criminals from then on and he became…insert dramatic pause here… The Punisher. The character developed a solid cult following with guest appearances in later issues of Spider-Man as well as Daredevil and he was eventually given his own five issue mini-series by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck in the eighties. A regular series followed a few years after that as well as a spin off series or two and a goofy straight to video film starring Dolph Lundgren. Since then series' have been cancelled, then rejuvenated and in 2004 Marvel injected the character with some much-needed fresh blood in the form of Preacher team Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. The comics were back on track and thus, a new R-Rated big screen adaptation was born in the form of Jonathan Hensleigh's Thomas Jane vehicle. Since this movie was made, it was topped by Lexi Alexander's 2008 Punisher: War Zone and the 2018 Netflix series but even if this is a lesser take on the character, it's still worth a watch.
In this incarnation, Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is an undercover agent finishing his last job before he and his lovely wife and son are to go off to London to live happily ever after. When one of the hoods gets shot up and dies in the sting, he Castle finds out the hard way that he was the son of a prominent businessman, Howard Saint (John Travolta). Saint doesn't take too kindly to the death of his son and decides to pay Castle back in spades by having his entire family killed during a party on the beach at his parent's house.
His family's death sends Castle into a downward spiral. He starts drinking heavily and becomes a man obsessed with vengeance. He uses his special forces training to trick out some weapons and build himself a small arsenal, which will come in handy when he begins to wage his one-man war on crime. He moves into a run-down apartment and befriends three of the tenants there, then proceeds to take Saint and his small army of thugs down a few pegs, proving that revenge truly is a dish best served cold.
There aren't a whole lot of plot twists or deep, original characters in The Punisher. There aren't any intricate, meaningful discussions on the reasons we're all on this Earth and it doesn't really break any new ground in any way whatsoever. What it is though, is pure, unabashed entertainment. It's a big budget B-movie that plays off like an old Spaghetti Western or 80s era action film that Bronson or Dudikoff would have made. Thomas Jane even comes across with a bit of Eastwood in his performance, furthering the Spaghetti Western felt that this very urban action movie is permeated with, and that's not a bad thing at all. It's good brainless fun.
Despite some very obvious moments where the comic strays from the source material (what is Frank Castle doing in Miami?) the character does stay reasonably true to his comic book roots. Jane does a great job as a tough man of few words, playing the strong and silent type with a bit of style and a whole lot of cool. Travolta does a nice job as the heavy, going over the top as he's prone to do in a few scenes that make him look and sound like a walking talking comic book villain. Throw in some fun cameos and bit parts for the lovely and talented Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X-Men), Roy Scheider (Jaws), and even professional wrestler Kevin Nash and you've got a good cast that do a good job with the unashamedly popcorn material they have to work with.
Castle's mission of vengeance is more or less a way to tie together a few different action set pieces in the film, giving the character a reason to kill. Director John Hensleigh ensures that the movie trucks along at a quick pace and that the action scenes are the focal point of the film, but still manages to work a simple but effective story into the shoot-outs and explosions we all want to see.
The Punisher is shown in its original 2.35.1 aspect ratio in an HEVC / H.265 encoded 4k transfer with HDR and Dolby Vision. If this isn't the ultimate UHD demo material, it does offer a very solid upgrade over the past Blu-ray (which looked fine, really). Detail and depth both advance over what we've seen before, especially in close up shots were facial detail is really impressive. The film's often dark cinematography looks better here, shadows look less murky and black levels are spot on although there is a tiny bit of crush in a couple of the darker spots. There's nice texture evident throughout, you'll notice this in the costumes and some of the sets/locations used for the shoot, while skin tones appear lifelike and natural throughout. The film was shot on 35mm, it wasn't a digital production, so it stands to reason that this is a legitimate 4k transfer and not a 2k upscale, and it does certainly look the part. The image is very film-like, showing little in the way of print damage but retaining some natural grain (which is more obvious in some shots than others). Noise reduction and edge enhancement are never issues. There is some occasional banding noticeable in a few spots but otherwise, no complains here, the movie looks really good.
An English Dolby Atmos mix serves as the main option, and it's a good one. In fact, it's pretty much flawless. The action scenes really open up here, with superb bass response and a really strong lower end ensuring that gun shots really kick the way they should. At the same time, dialogue stays perfectly clear and clean, never buried in the mix at all. The score has really good range, making excellent use of the surround channels and filling the room up really nicely. Quieter moments also benefit from the Atmos treatment, with subtle surround activity noticeable throughout even during the movie's calmer scenes. It's a very immersive mix and quite an impressive effort on Lionsgate's part. Optional Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks are provided in French and Spanish with subtitles available in English, English SDH and Spanish.
Extras on this release are all carried over from the old DVD edition. First up is a commentary track from director John Hensleigh. He's got plenty to say about the film, and its origins as a comic book and why he changed what he did in relation to some of the source material. He's never at a loss for words and has plenty to say about a myriad of topics as the film progresses, including films that influenced him (as I stated, The Punisher wears its influences proudly on its sleeve), as well as certain visual aspects he worked to retain for the film and about the stigma that can come from working on a big screen adaptation of a comic book. It's quite an interesting listen and if you enjoyed the film, it's well worth sitting through it again to listen to the commentary track.
There are also two brief deleted scenes included on the disc, both of which have optional commentary from Hensleigh available over top of them or that can be viewed with their original audio mix. The first is an alternate opening scene in which Saint arrives at his club, and the other is some more character development between some members of the family. Neither of these scenes would have really added a whole lot to the film and from what the director states on the commentary, he realizes this too, thus the cuts were made.
Lion's Gate has whipped up four featurettes that detail the behind the scenes action and genesis of the film in quite a bit of detail.
War Journal: On The Set Of The Punisher: Clocking in at almost half an hour, this in depth look at life on the set of the film is an interesting watch as it intersperses footage of shot setups and the like with cast and crew interviews. It takes a candid approach and comes across as a realistic feeling documentary look at what went on behind the camera during the making of the film.
Keepin' It Real: The Punisher Stunts: The focus of this twenty-seven-minute piece is the scene where the Punisher's car jumps over the bridge. This piece takes us through that stunt (and a few other lesser ones) from start to finish and we get to see how it was done. Hensleigh and a few of the stuntmen who worked on the film with him are interviewed in between clips of the stunt work and again, this is a keen little segment.
Army Of One: Punisher Origins: I found this thirteen-minute featurette to be the most enjoyable of the four segments. As a long time comic geek it was nice to see some of the guys who actually worked on the character (and in Gerry Conway's case, created him!) get some props. Garth Ennis, the current writer on the series, is on hand to offer his comments on the film as well as a few other creators. Plenty of great comic art can be seen and it's interesting to compare the character's early appearances to the way he is portrayed in the film.
Drawing Blood: Bradstreet Style: If you're familiar with or a fan of Tim Bradstreet's moody artwork (previously seen every month on the cover of The Punisher comic books from the Marvel Max series among other places) then you'll enjoy this quick six-minute look at his marketing and conceptual artwork for the film.
Rounding out the extra features are a video from Drowning Pool for their song Step Up, which is featured on the film's soundtrack and which uses clips from the movie, menus and chapter selection. This release also contains a standard Blu-ray version of the movie and a download code for a Digital HD version of the film. Both discs fit inside a black keepcase that in turn fits inside a nice slipcover.
Lion's Gate has given The Punisher a nice UHD upgrade. They audio and video are much improved and the extras, while all carried over from the original DVD release, are comprehensive and interesting. Those of you out there who, like me, fondly remember the days Spaghetti Westerns or the action films of the eighties should enjoy this comic book adaptation and the film. If you're fan of the film, this release offers a considerable improvement over past editions and for that reason, it comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.