Comic-book adaptations are rife at the moment, with Marvel going overboard by putting into production movies with such b-characters as Elektra and Catwoman (both dire). It is most certainly the age of the superhero, but sooner or later we might go one step too far (Ghost Rider?). However, this is not the first time that many of the more popular characters have been brought to the small/big screen. By the end of the 80s, we had already seen interpretations of Spiderman, The Hulk and, at its campest, Batman. But the big one was Superman, possibly the most significant of superhero movies at the time. In 1989, however, a very different Marvel 'superhero' was brought to life on the big screen: The Punisher. A war veteran on a bloody vendetta, the character's origins were not wholly unlike those of Batman - borne out of a brutal act of violence, holding no overt 'super' powers and on a quest to clean up the streets. There was one main difference, of course - The Punisher was judge, jury and executioner. He would happily kill those who the law could not touch, in fact you could probably say that it was his main purpose. The 1989 vision of this character was embodied by Rocky IV's Dolph Lundgren, who did well in a dark, monosyllabic part but, after fifteen years, a remake was not that big a surprise. So, in 2004 we got the all-new Punisher, which was met with mixed reviews. Now, two years later we have an extended edition. So does it significantly improve on the last version or is it just another desperate double-dip marketing ploy?
Veteran of The Gulf War, Frank Castle has just retired from his job as an undercover FBI operative. On his last mission, however, he inadvertently brought about the death of the son of a very big Florida crime boss, Howard Saint, who is not prepared to forgive and forget. After a hit squad is dispatched to eliminate all of his friends and family, Castle is left for dead, only to come back to life in the guise of a hardened weapon of war. Now the Punisher will stop at nothing to bring down the men responsible for all those deaths of innocents.
The 2004 Punisher was a flawed but nevertheless above-average revenge thriller. Bearing no small resemblance to the classic Mad Max, it tried its best to remain faithful to its comic book origins (retaining many sub-plots and characters that fans will be familiar with) but failing - in my opinion - to fully embrace this dark and violent 'superhero'. These days, with characters such as Mickey Rourke's Marv (from the landmark Sin City) populating some of the best thrillers out there, I expect my anti-heroes to be properly dark and brutal. And when you compare the 2004 Punisher to its 1989 uncle or even its excellent 2004 video game brother, you can see that something has been lost.
I would have liked, for example, more punishment: more violence and torture before the lame Popsicle interrogation sequence (even if it was straight from the comics, there the character had already been established as dark and bloodthirsty, whereas in the movie it is one of the first acts of pseudo-punishment that he commits). I would have liked to have seen our hero get some use out of all those weapons he goes to great lengths to conceal around his apartment, and get some mileage out of his souped-up, armoured car (which he also spent ages working on) before it gets totalled. It just seems a bit shallow, the moments like something out of a CSI montage sequence.
There are still some great scenes, like when the Punisher encounters the Russian (one of his toughest comic-book enemies) or the climactic shootout which, however brief, gives you more of a true sense of what this dark character is about. But unfortunately they are diluted by the other, more contrived and more pointless aspects of the story. I mean, the whole drawn-out sub-plot involving parking tickets and fire hydrants feels more like something out of the classic 1960s Mission Impossible TV series than the gritty revenge fable that this is meant to be.
The same mediocre feelings apply to the cast. Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea) steps into the big boots of Dolph Lundgren to play Frank 'The Punisher' Castle. Sure his hair is dyed appropriately black and he has spent some time in the gym but he just doesn't have the stature or presence to make this character as iconic as he should have been. He's nowhere near as disappointing as John Travolta is though, in his role as the lead bad guy Howard Saint. He plays the supposedly successful mob boss as a permanently constipated weasel-pimp and leaves you often wondering how Saint even managed to get into such a position of power. Travolta enjoyed a brief comeback with superb movies like Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty, but has become extremely lacklustre as of late, and is resoundingly lame here.
There are some other familiar faces on offer: the ever-reliable Roy Scheider (Jaws) as Frank Castle Sr., the leggy Rebecca Romjin-Stamos (Mystique from the X-Men trilogy) as Kate, a girl who lives in The Punisher's apartment black and the underrated Will Patton (Argmageddon) as Howard Saint's second-in-command, but none of them play particularly deep or interesting characters - despite their screen-time.
The Punisher turns out to be just another revenge thriller, probably above-average in terms of style and budget, but nothing particularly special. In its original form it would have been at the upper end of the 6/10 rating for me, almost a 7. But now, of course, we have the extended cut at our disposal. Marvel seems to do this extended cut thing quite a lot with their releases (successfully in Daredevil, but to no avail in Elektra) but unlike those, this extended cut is 'unrated' purely for promotional purposes, i.e. to encourage a double-dip. So, no more violence, or sex, or even action for that matter. But is it still a superior cut? In short, yes.
Kicking off we have an all-new opening sequence. Originally it was supposed to start the theatrical cut, but it was scrapped for budgetary reasons. Now, through a use of technology akin to a predecessor of what we have seen in the likes of A Scanner Darkly, we get an animated version of this scene, utilising still photos of the real actors. Set during the Gulf conflict, it establishes Castle as a one-man army and gives us a taste of his sense of 'justice', and also sets up his fellow soldier, Weeks, who goes on to be a fellow FBI Agent and friend, and plays an integral part in rest of the extended cut.
In fact, almost all of the seventeen minutes (twenty-two if you count the animated opening, which I highly recommend you watch - as is option - complete with the rest of the extended edition) are devoted to the relationship between Castle and his close but somewhat dubious friend Weeks. The extra plot-line offers a deeper insight into the way Castle thinks and furthers the exploration into his ideas about justice and punishment. In addition to this sub-plot, we get a little more Howard Saint, in particular establishing his relationship with the Cuban Toro crime brothers that we see later on in the movie.
All in all, whilst it does not turn this revenge thriller into something of the standards of Mad Max, nor make it better than the 1989 Punisher or even the 2004 Punisher videogame, it does make it a more character-driven affair and, quite simply, a better watch. And with a sequel in the making, supposedly for release next year, what better time to re-investigate the post-millennium Punisher than with the release of this extended edition?
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