2004's The Punisher starring Thomas Jane as the titular one-man army of death and destruction is very much the first part of a franchise that never was. While a solid revenge action flick, it deviates from the character's traditional source material and suffers from a languid inactive pace at the hands of water/director Jonathan Hensleigh. When the action kicks in, it's high-gear bloodletting and proves to be an entertaining ride despite flaws. Lionsgate breathes some life back into this dead hero with a solid native 4K transfer with Dolby Vision HDR and a slick and impressive Dolby Atmos mix. Toss in all of the previous bonus features and you have a disc that proves to be a worthy upgrade over the previous Blu-ray. Recommended.
"Vaya con Dios, Castle. Go with God."
"God's gonna sit this one out."
Special Agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) has earned his retirement. After spending years undercover away from his friends and family, he's finally put a major case to rest and is ready to go home. The only problem is he didn't expect the wrath of Miami mob boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) after his son died when the deal went south. After Saint commissioned a hit that wiped out Frank's entire family and left him for dead, Frank is no longer Frank anymore. He has become a one-man army of death, destruction, and vengeance hell-bent on destroying Howard Saint and his entire criminal empire.
While Thomas Jane cuts a mean jib with the iconic skull logo, a glowering disposition, and muscles to spare, it's hard for me to actually call this movie a true Punisher film. It's better than Dolph's 1989 outing, but it's still very flawed. I don't necessarily mind that the film took its time to establish and expand the character's origin (even though it is incredibly simple and didn't require that much effort), it does bother me that they made so many changes. Miami as a location doesn't convey the same sense of urban decay and seething criminal atmosphere that is essential for the character. Changing his family's death from a random act of violence to an act of purposeful revenge removes the true object of Frank Castle's rage - Society as a whole.
Yeah, sure, he's got a few essential criminals on his hit list he wants to pick off for killing his family, but his one-man war is an act of vengeance against the society that spawned those criminals. He doesn't care who he kills. If someone is doing something very wrong there's a good chance The Punisher has got a laser sight pointed at their medulla oblongata. It allows his acts of unrestrained violence to become urban legends among criminals so that when/if they see that white skull in the dark they know they are really and truly screwed. All of that is missing from this version of The Punisher and it is what in my opinion keeps this film from being a good adaptation of the character.
I do appreciate what writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh was going for. Take away all mentions of Frank Castle and "The Punisher" and this film would be a solid action revenge thriller in the vein of Death Wish or Rolling Thunder. But such as it is, it's a bit too bloated for my liking. Hensleigh has some great writing chops to his credit so the man knows how to stage an action sequence, the hit on Castle's family is brutal and downright scary, but other sequences of exposition or tidbits lifted from the comics feel a bit stilted and slow. The meeting with the Johnny Cash look-alike assassin Harry Heck (Mark Collie) is a great scene. It's awesome. But it's also pointless. As is the hilarious ripped-from-the-comics fight with The Russian (Kevin Nash). It's great fan service material but it doesn't do much for the story as a whole - especially when everyone seems to know that Frank Castle is alive and where he lives.
It had been some number of years since I last saw The Punisher. I believe the last time was around when the Extended Edition (not included in this set) was released on DVD with something like fifteen minutes of material that didn't really add anything to the show beyond time. I've remained a tepid fan. I love Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, he was perfect casting -- even though I wish someone would buy him a shirt. I even enjoyed Travolta as Howard Saint, especially when he goes nuts and starts murdering his own family and friends in a crazy rage. More crazy rage Travolta would have been great, but such as it is, he's pretty good.
There is a lot I like about this version of The Punisher. As a long time fan of the comics, I admit I had the nerd squeals during various scenes that were ripped right from the pages of my favorite issues. I just wish they'd kept closer to the true origin and character mythos rather than aiming to be a standard revenge flick. This aspect is the one reason why I slightly tip my hat towards favoring Punisher: War Zone, but that flick has its own issues that kept it from greatness.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Lionsgate Films unleashes The Punisher onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in a two-disc 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital set. The included Blu-ray is the old release and has not been updated. The film is pressed onto a BD-100 disc and is housed in a black eco-friendly case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads directly to an animated main menu with traditional navigation options. All bonus features are included on the 4K Disc.
Sourced from a 35mm negative, The Punisher actually enjoys a notable uptick in overall quality with this native 4K 2160p 2.35:1 transfer with HDR10 and Dolby Vision. My first and immediate worry when I plugged the film in was how dark it appeared. I thought shadows may be a bit dark and thick, even during the establishing Puerto Rico family fun scenes. But after doing some quick disc swapping for comparison, I have to say that this new scan is a notable improvement. These shadowy elements may remain but there are distinctions and accents within the shadows that just isn't present on the ancient Blu-ray release. Film grain remains, there are a couple establishing shots where grain can be a bit more intrusive, but as a whole, it appears better resolved creating a nice film-like image. Facial features are great, subtle background details like gravel in the road or blades of grass on the beach become more apparent. The details in Frank's rundown home base captures the squalor contemporary look with a fresh coat of grease and grime making that fight with Kevin Nash's The Russian all the more fun.
With Dolby Vision HDR in play, the image enjoys a nice primary pop. The first shot of the yellow Corvette has that nice rich banana yellow color and the extra detail allows you to appreciate that thing of mechanical beauty as well as see all of the little beads of rain on the hood and windshield. Same for Frank's gorgeous black GTO, the shots of him retrofitting his car and the Henry Heck action sequence gives terrific highlights to the grey/black shading. Blood obviously has nice robustly red hue to it as well. Flesh tones are also nice and healthy.
Black levels and contrast are well worked giving the image a nice sense of three-dimensional depth even in the darkest of moments. Whites have a nice fresh crispness to them without blooms. As I mentioned earlier, shadows are a little better resolved, allowing shades, colors, and lighting to come to life. The new scan has also cleaned up a number of bits of speckling that I noticed from rewatching the Blu-ray. If there is a negative it is that there are a couple sequences were blacks become a bit crushed. Nothing serious for very long but it is notable when you see some floating heads. The other issue of note is CGI really sticks out here and the film's finale shot of the flaming punisher skull logo in the carpark really looks soft and out of place to the rest of the film. But those are but a few small quibbles and nitpicks I have, nothing truly serious. All in all, this is a notable improvement in image quality. Maybe not 100% demo material but a clear winner over the SDR Blu-ray.
The Punisher enjoys a massive improvement in the audio quality with a fine-tuned Dolby Atmos audio track. Rightly and upfront, the verticals don't really experience a whole lot of distinct object-based activity, but as a whole they add a great amount of space to the mix giving voices, ambients, scoring, and sound effects terrific presence and life. Flipping back to the original Blu-ray it's impressive how much more dynamic and present this mix is compared to the Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES 6.1 tracks of the old Blu-ray. While the old Blu-ray audio tracks were impressive for their day, they're notably flatter sounding. That Henry Heck gunfight is sonically brutal by comparison with the explosive gunfire and the tinny clang against the armored windows of the GTO.
Even when the film is on the quieter side this track really finds some great life and atmosphere. When we're first introduced to Howard Saint after his son was killed the room sounds large with great spacing and enough eco to give it dimension. It's mostly a talking scene that gets punctuated with a great burst of gunfire. Likewise, the Russian fight sequence plays to comical delight as frank fights for his life while his neighbors are blissfully unaware. Those punches and explosions really kick some nice LFE and spread out around the soundscape. Also nice is when Frank goes stealth with his kills allowing that bow to zip arrows across the channels into the guttural gurgling targets. Levels are on point without any softness issues. At this point, you can safely say this new Atmos mix leaves the old release in the dust.
Righting another wrong, Lionsgate updated the bonus feature package to include a lot of the material that was available for the old DVD release but remained absent from the Blu-ray. The director's audio commentary is a great listen as you get a real sense of what Hensleigh was going for with the film but was either constrained by budget or studio decision making. The rest of the package is worth picking through if you're a fan of the flick.
The Punisher is a solid action revenge flick - even if it breaks from the comics in several key areas of the character. Thomas Jane brings his A-game to the character and amiably dons the skull logo and trenchcoat. It's not the greatest comic movie ever made, and truthfully it's probably not the best Punisher film out there, but it remains solid action entertainment just the same. Lionsgate Films offers fans a significant and notable improvement for this release giving the film a sparkling new native 4K transfer with Dolby Vision HDR and a greatly improved Atmos audio mix. If you're a fan and on the 4K train, set your sights on this 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of The Punisher. Recommended.