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Category:    Home > Reviews > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Military > Gangster > Comedy > The Punisher - Extended Cut (2004/DVD-Video Set)

The Punisher - Extended Cut (2004/DVD-Video Set)

 

Picture: B+     Sound: B+     Extras: B-     Film: B+

 

 

Jonathan Hensleigh's The Punisher was the biggest guilty pleasure of 2004, but now that 17 minutes of previously deleted footage has been added back into the film, there's not as much to feel guilty about.  While the theatrical cut was a highly entertaining throwback to the kind of hardcore vigilante films Charles Bronson used to star in, the extended cut now elevates it to what is quite possibly the coolest piece of action filmmaking since Walter Hill's Last Man Standing (1996).

 

Based on the Marvel comic that was borne out of the mid-70s heyday of Bronson and violent revenge movies in general, this second big-screen version of The Punisher is not only an infinite improvement over the awful 1989 film adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren, but also one of the best films ever to be based on a comic book.

 

Unlike most modern-day movies with comic-book origins, co-writer and first-time director Hensleigh doesn't get carried away with CGI and incessant quick cutting, instead setting out to make a grittier, darker and tougher tale done in the more traditional and hard-edged style of action filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel and Walter Hill.  Hensleigh definitely succeeds, and handles things with the sure hand of an old pro.

 

Hensleigh's The Punisher was originally scripted to begin with a prologue set in Kuwait City during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but the sequence was scratched before filming began after being deemed too expensive for a project budgeted at $30 million -- a very modest sum for an action film of this era.  But for the extended cut, Hensleigh went back with illustrators and actors Thomas Jane and Russell Andrews to create an animated version of the sequence that sets up a subplot almost entirely cut out of the theatrical version.

 

When we first meet Frank Castle (Jane), he's the heroic member of the Special Forces unit during the '91 Gulf War.  After returning from the war, both Castle and his military buddy, Jimmy Weeks (Andrews), become FBI agents.

 

While working undercover as a South African arms dealer, Castle successfully stages his own death during a sting operation so he can retire in peace with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and their little boy.  However, during the said sting operation, one of the participants killed is one of the twin sons of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a Tampa-area crime lord.  Along with his even more vengeful wife (sexy Laura Harring), the powerful Saint immediately takes steps to track down the man responsible for setting up his son.

 

By exploiting Weeks' secret gambling addiction, Saint discovers Castle's real identity as The Castle Family is vacationing in Puerto Rico.  Soon Saint's henchmen crash the family reunion, killing almost everybody, well almost everybody.  The massacre wipes out Castle's entire family, and by entire I mean not just his wife, son, father (Roy Scheider) and mother, but aunts, uncles and cousins too.  However, Castle himself somehow survives despite receiving three gunshot wounds and being blown out to sea in an explosion -- yeah, it's unlikely, but otherwise we wouldn't have a movie.

 

Castle then spends the next several months recuperating with the help of a fisherman on a remote island.  When he returns to the scene of the massacre, he finds some guns and a T-Shirt with a skull on the front that his son gave him as a gift.  The skull will become the emblem of Castle's vigilante as he sets out to punish those responsible for murdering his loved ones.

 

That Castle seeks revenge is not surprising, but he goes about doing it in ways that are a lot more imaginative than usual in such a vengeance-is-mine movie.  This one also has a surprisingly sharp script with a lot of nice off-beat touches; one of my favorites involves a scene where a Johnny Cash-looking assassin named Harry Heck (real-life Country & Western singer Mark Collie) hired to eliminate Castle walks into a diner where Castle is eating and sings him a little ditty he wrote especially for the occasion. 

 

Another nice touch is the tentative friendship that develops between Castle and the three other outcasts living in the dilapidated building where Castle takes up residence.  Living down the hall is Joan (Rebecca Romijn), the most beautiful de-glamorized waitress since Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie & Johnny.  Then there's Dave (Ben Foster), who has multiple facial piercings, and his corpulent sidekick, Bumpo (John Pinette).  The bonding of these four outsiders is oddly affecting and gives this ferocious revenge thriller some unexpected heart.

 

Villains are always another key component to action films, and Travolta subdued performance is far more effective than the hammy way he portrayed villains in Broken Arrow (see the Blu-ray review elsewhere on this site) and Face/Off.  And as Saint's vicious right-hand man, Will Patton steals every scene he's in, again showing he's a master of sinister understatement. 

 

The down-to-earth villainy of Travolta and Patton contrasts nicely with exaggerated characteristics of two secondary hit-men heavies, the aforementioned singing contract killer and a massive hulk called the Russian (pro wrestler Kevin Nash, formerly Diesel of the WWF), who has an over-the-top fight scene with Castle that plays like a great wrestling match.

 

Like Last Man Standing, Hensleigh's The Punisher is grim, violent film about an anti-hero protagonist who doesn't care whether he lives or dies because a large part of him is already dead anyway.  Except in The Punisher we see the exact point where Frank Castle died in spirit while the spiritual death of the Bruce Willis character in Last Man Standing occurred long before we meet him.  Both films, though, manage to generate an unexpected resonance from the minor connection the alienated loner makes back to humanity.

 

The Punisher is a well-plotted, well-shot (by cinematographer Conrad W. Hall) and intense movie, and Hensleigh does a good job of balancing the brutal action with dark humor, while still providing enough defining character moments.  He also finds just the right exaggerated, yet not-too-exaggerated tone for the material.  And harking back to the likes of Death Wish and Dirty Harry, the film is refreshing in this age of cockamamie political correctness in the un-PC way it appeals to the righteousness of viewers who want to see innocence protected, evil defeated and the guilty to suffer.

 

The only real disappointment in the film is that the underrated, under-used Scheider doesn't get more screen time.

 

Hensleigh and Jane are hoping to reunite for a Punisher 2.  It's a rare sequel that deserves to get made.

 

Lionsgate’s DVD version of the extended cut of The Punisher is top notch, and one of the best looking and sounding DVDs I've seen to date.  The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has a clear, vivid picture with exceptional 6.1 DTS-ES and 5.1 Dolby Digital EX sound.  The DTS is especially spectacular and should be the preferred playback version.  Editing of both picture and sound are excellent, especially for the genre.

 

Extras include a making-of featurette showing how the new animated opening sequence was achieved.  A gallery of Punisher comic-book covers showing examples from all four decades is also included.  Note that this is also more than the Blu-ray edition of the film that has arrived in the shorter theatrical cut to begin with.

 

 

-   Chuck O'Leary


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