4K UltraHD Review: The Punisher (2004)

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With the Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrating its ten-year anniversary, films produced under the Marvel banner before the first Iron Man (2008) seem almost like ancient history. Way back in 1989, Dolph Lundgren portrayed Frank Castle in a fairly disastrous Australia/U.S. co-production that was quickly (and deservedly) forgotten. It wasn't until 2004 that another big-screen version was attempted, this time with Thomas Jane offering a far more credible Frank Castle. John Travolta is on-hand as the villain, mob boss Howard Saint, in order to bolster marquee value.

This version is the directorial debut of previously screenwriter-only Jonathan Hensleigh (writer of hits like Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon). It's serviceably-crafted action fare, but it cannot be stressed enough that this film is firmly rooted in its pre-MCU era. Beginning with Jon Favreau's Iron Man, Marvel Studios seemingly can't miss. Certainly not at the box office, but the films themselves, with rare exceptions (Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron missed the mark in many ways), have been flat-out awesome. They've crafted a film cycle that combines strong storytelling, unforgettable performances, and utterly top-notch production values.

That just wasn't the case with many pre-MCU Marvel-branded films. The first two X-Men films were excellent, but I'll go out on a limb and say that even Sam Raimi's much-celebrated Spider-Man films weren't actually very good. So, revisiting it on its brand-new 4K UltraHD reissue, the 2004 edition of The Punisher feels like it might've just as easily come out in 1994—that's how dated it feels. It plays like a flashy, medium-budget, generic action thriller. As an old-school origin story, showing Castle undercover on his last FBI sting operation, The Punisher is flat-footed. Saint's son is killed in the sting, so he retaliates by having Castle's family executed. Marvel's Netflix series The Punisher handles Castle's origin story in a more interesting, engaging way.

Still, Thomas Jane offers a commanding turn as Castle-turned-Punisher. But there's just too much silliness going on throughout to make anything stick. And Travolta phones it in, investing the least energy and creativity possible in his characterization as mob heavy Saint. If you didn't know who Travolta was, you'd be easily forgiven for assuming he was just another B-movie stock actor straight out of Central Casting. Only in the film's final moments does writer-director Hensleigh show glimmers of promise of what the franchise might become. But there was no real sequel, just a reboot with a new Castle (and a new tone) four years later.

Luckily for fans of the film (and/or collectors of all things Marvel-related), Lionsgate's 4K upgrade offers a significantly more handsome image than the old Blu-ray. Honestly, and I had to pop in the included standard 1080p BD to confirm, the original release of The Punisher sported a pretty dull transfer. The new 4K isn't going to be anyone's go-to reference disc, but sharpness, richness of color, and overall detail are unmistakably improved. There's also a wake-the-neighbors Dolby Atmos mix that sounds great.

Special features are exclusive to the 4K disc, with the standard Blu-ray being movie-only. On the 4K you'll find a nice amount of material, including Hensleigh commentary and a trio of substantial documentaries. "Keeping It Real" deals with the film's stunt sequences, "War Journal" is a more traditional overall making of; both are about a half-hour. "Army of One" is a 15-minute overview of the Punisher's comic book history. A couple deleted scenes and a Drowning Pool music video. Though these features did appear on the original DVD, those upgrading from the Blu-ray (which doesn't include them) can also consider these an upgrade.

Punisher 4K.jpg

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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