Poor, poor Punisher. Though not exactly at the bottom of the pecking order of comic book heroes, the guy still hasn't had much luck in Hollywood. He's got no real superpowers, no spandex costume, no identifiable insignia (sorry, that makeshift skull on his chest looks like an Iron Maiden concert t-shirt) and not nearly the same market recognition as Superman or Batman -- hardly attributes that would help sell the guy to studio executives. Worse, he was already the subject of one failed big-screen adaptation, a 1989 bomb that not only had the misfortune to open the same year as Tim Burton's genre-redefining 'Batman' but also starred Dolph Lundgren. Now that's bad luck.
But given the recent resurgence in all things comic book in Hollywood, I suppose it was inevitable that someone would give The Punisher another shot. With his bad attitude, propensity for easy violence and generally bad-ass profile (really, who doesn't look good in black holding a machine gun?) he cuts a mean cinematic figure and certainly knows how to blow up things real good. He also bears more direct cinematic lineage to vigilante films like 'Dirty Harry' and 'Death Wish' than the PG-13-ready thrills of 'Fantastic Four,' so how nice it is to have a counterculture anti-hero in this era of "safe" comic book do-gooders like Superman and Spider-Man (and perhaps The Punisher even has the potential to become a new Terminator-like icon, now that Arnie is busy governing California and not Cyberdyne Systems?)
Anyway, the eventual update of 'The Punisher' that finally hit theaters back in early 2004 came from indie Lionsgate and was produced on a healthy if far from extravagant budget. Another one of those "origin stories," it hoped to fill us in on how The Punisher came to be and launch a new franchise in the process. Alas, it didn't. Scoring up a meager $30-odd million theatrical gross (though it did better on DVD), it failed to ignite audiences and many have already forgotten it. Still, watching it for the first time for this review on Blu-ray, I actually liked the film quite a bit. It's a solid effort that is well directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, boasts some exciting action scenes and is refreshing in its old-school simplicity. When so many comic book films today are wall-to-wall CGI or neutered to the point of being innocuous, it is oddly heartening to see a character whose sole purpose is to drive around on a motorcycle and kill people.
'The Punisher' also benefits from a very fine cast for a comic book movie, albeit without any major stars save for John Travolta as baddie Howard Saint. Ironically, for me Travolta was the weakest in the cast, precisely because he is so well known that I never believed quite believed in him. Which means even more kudos to Thomas Jane, who turns The Punisher and his alter ego Frank Castle into a conflicted character of real pathos and emotion, and nicely counteracts Travolta's increasing penchant for hamminess. Even Rebecca Romijn (then Romijn-Stamos) delivers what may be her best performance out of blue body paint as Castle's white-trash love interest Joan. Of course, Romijn is an actress who is stunning to look at, but has sometimes suffered from failing to overcome her beauty with A-level performances the way Charlize Theron and Halle Berry have. So it is to her and Jane's credit that what could have been just another mindless comic book adaptation instead holds our interest because it is about real, identifiable people and not just another guy jumping around in tights. I don't want to give the impression that 'The Punisher' is a new classic of the genre, but it is a refreshing change from the usual comic book shtick if you give it a chance.
Presented in 2.35:1 and encoded at 1080p, 'The Punisher' is definitely one of the best Blu-ray releases I've seen yet. It is certainly the most consistent, delivering a picture that clearly looks like high-definition for most of its runtime. Hopefully, if Blu-ray supporting studios continue to deliver transfers of this quality, it may help counteract some of the early negative buzz that has plagued the format's launch.
In any case, Lionsgate has put some real care into this transfer. For a film whose overriding visual aesthetic and palette veers so strongly towards black, 'The Punisher' looks surprisingly colorful on Blu-ray. Hues are bold and stable, with rich splashes of color infusing the costume and production design quite effectively. Chroma noise and smearing is also not a problem. Of course, the film is still filled with plenty of shadows, worn leather and chrome, but both black levels and contrast are uniformly above-average. Shadow delineation is also quite impressive, with even fine details visible in the darkest scenes (which is a good thing, as about 80 percent of the movie appears to have been shot at night in low-lit conditions). I also enjoyed the the sense of depth and detail to the picture -- after viewing so many early Blu-ray titles with spotty and inconsistent prints, this one looked like a new movie should with no major print defects or anomalies. I was frequently startled by how three-dimensional the transfer appears, which is what high-def is all about. Finally, a real winner on Blu-ray.
Also strong are the included Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES 6.1 surround tracks (unlike most other Blu-ray and HD DVD-supporting studios, Lionsgate has so far eschewed Dolby Digital-Plus and uncompressed PCM mixes and instead ported over only the same soundtracks currently available on the standard DVD release). 'The Punisher' benefits from fairly active sound design, which is generally effective and enveloping for the majority of the film.
Certainly, the film does not lack for action and sonic spectacle. Most impressive is the aggressive use of discrete sounds in the rears, with nice imaging and creative placement of effects such as gunfire, explosions and the Punisher's rumbling motorcycle. The soundfield sounds even more seamless and enveloping on the DTS-ES mix -- rear effects boast slightly fuller midrange and atmospheric sounds also popped out more from the rears. Generally, dynamic range is excellent on both mixes, with a spacious feel across the entire frequency range. Low bass is also quite pronounced (again slightly more on the DTS track) and really delivers some punch.
My only gripe with the sound design of 'The Punisher' is typical of most comic book films -- the action scenes receive all of the attention, often to the exclusion of more subtle atmospherics, and here composer Carlo Siliotto's score as well. The music is largely overshadowed by all the bombast, which is a shame because it could have added more mood if it wasn't so overpowered in the mix. Still, both the Dolby and DTS mixes are effective and I have no major complaints.
Like all of Lionsgate's initial Blu-ray releases, 'The Punisher' gets no love in the extras department.
'The Punisher' is a somewhat overlooked and unrated comic book adaptation. Lacking the spandex and big stunts of the 'Batman' and 'Superman' franchises it inevitably failed at the box office, though a growing cult on DVD may give the character another shot at longevity. In any case, this first-ever Blu-ray release of the film boasts a nice transfer and soundtrack but not a single supplement. Still, it delivers on the bottom line -- I just wish Lionsgate would price its bare bones Blu-ray titles at less than $39.95, because that's likely too steep for all but the most rabid Punisher fans to cough up.