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Punisher, The (Blu-ray) (1989)
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Details At A Glance
Alternative Version-Unrated Cut
Audio Commentary-with Mark Goldblatt
Alternative Version-Goldblatt Workprint
Interviews-Crew-Violence Down Under: Mark Goldblatt Interview
Interviews-Cast-Vengeance Is His: Dolph Lundgren Interview
Year Of Production
||Cast & Crew
Louis Gossett, Jr.
NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.
Before comic book properties were a hot cinematic commodity, there was 1989's The Punisher, which was one of the first-ever live-action films based on Marvel Comics (after 1986's Howard the Duck). Instead of a PG-rated, family-friendly superhero flick in the same vein as Superman or Batman, director Mark Goldblatt's The Punisher is a dark, R-rated vigilante action film, closer to Death Wish or Mad Max than a run-of-the-mill comic book movie. Although a blasphemous notion at the time of its release, the violent source material is a perfect fit for this brand of B-grade action entertainment, even if the film does lack legitimate personality to distinguish it from the dozens of other vigilante pictures produced during the 1980s. Indeed, this iteration of The Punisher lacks the iconic skull emblem on the titular antihero's shirt, and strips away more of the comic's defining characteristics - such as the Punisher's psychological traumas, the recognisable villains, and his Q-esque partner who supplies weaponry and tech. Consequently, this first cinematic depiction of the Punisher is fun to watch, but never lingers in the mind.
Former police officer Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) loses his wife (May Lloyd) and daughters in a mob hit orchestrated by mafia boss Dino Miretti (Bryan Marshall), which leaves the widower a broken man. With nothing left to lose, Castle - who is officially listed as deceased - becomes an armed vigilante known as The Punisher, who protects the innocent by assassinating the city's key crime bosses. With 125 murders to his name over five years, Castle is a wanted man, with his ex-partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) heading a specialised Punisher taskforce to stop the notorious vigilante. After Miretti's murder, mobster Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) comes out of retirement to unify the Mafia families, but they attract the attention of the Japanese Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). A mob war looms, and although Castle is happy to sit back and let the carnage unfold, he remains wary of the collateral damage when the Yakuza kidnaps the mobsters' children with plans to sell them into the Arab slave trade.
The Punisher is an Australian production, with principal photography primarily taking place in Sydney, which doubles for the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the scope is severely limited, with the majority of the film unfolding in cheap locations: sewers, offices, dojos, houses, and so on. Indeed, it is impossible to get a proper sense of the city, which reflects the restricted budget. On the other hand, pleasing action scenes are nevertheless staged within the confines of the available locations, including a violent amusement park shootout (filmed at Sydney's Luna Park) and a major action set-piece on a dock. Goldblatt does not hold back or pull any punches, as The Punisher earns its restricted adult rating through a high body count and graphic violence, which makes this an entertaining watch for old-school action fans. A veteran editor, Goldblatt made sure to capture ample coverage of each action scene, which results in exciting and competent set-pieces. A precursor to the frenetically-edited action pictures of the 21st Century, The Punisher does favour short shots and frequent cutting, but the set-pieces are coherent and easy to follow, even though the film underwent additional trimming to secure an R rating in the United States. (The unrated cut is the superior version.)
Whether the result of Boaz Yakin's script or those overseeing the editing process, The Punisher is pared down to the bare basics, with a lean 89-minute running time leaving no space for dead air. Under Goldblatt's direction, the film briskly moves from one action set-piece to the next, interspersed with perfunctory connective tissue to ensure the narrative is at least cohesive. Although Castle does reflect on his deceased family, this should be a more significant part of the story, with more in the way of psychological analysis. The workprint version of the film actually adds an extended prologue which establishes Castle's character, his family life, his professional partnership with Berkowitz, and the case that prompted Miretti to assassinate the Castle family. The prologue's removal is a genuine shame. Meanwhile, other technical aspects of The Punisher are solid if unremarkable, with a synth-heavy original score by Dennis Dreith which lacks defining themes and motifs, while production design is rudimentary and cheap.
Lundgren was an established action star at this point in his career, with leading roles in Masters of the Universe and Red Scorpion (in addition to his iconic antagonist role in Rocky IV), and he plays a convincing Frank Castle here. Castle is an antihero through-and-through, but Lundgren keeps the character sufficiently likeable, even if there are not many layers to his performance. In the supporting cast, veteran Australian actor Barry Otto provides a splash of colour as Castle's only friend, Shake; an alcoholic actor (or thespian, in his own words) who often speaks in rhymes. The always-reliable (and Oscar-winning) Gossett adds some gravitas to the material, while Jeroen Krabbé (The Living Daylights, The Fugitive) makes for a fine villain.
As an exploitative action movie, The Punisher is a perfectly serviceable way to pass 89 minutes of your time, though it's not essential viewing unless you're a fan of the '80s action genre. One cannot defend this movie as anything other than a surface-level guilty pleasure, and it's a shame that it comes up short in terms of character development, but it's a competently-constructed and fast-paced B-movie with no pretensions that never tries to transcend the genre. If a genre movie with such verve sounds appealing to you, The Punisher is worth watching. For everybody else, tread lightly.
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For years, The Punisher has been relegated to VHS and subpar DVD releases, but has now been remastered in pristine high definition for its Australian Blu-ray debut. Information about the restoration is scarce, but it appears to be based on a 2K scan, presumably of an interpositive, since this presentation doesn't possess the textural precision or sharpness of an original camera negative scan. The resulting 1080p, AVC-encoded presentation is a downright revelation for those who grew up watching the movie on VHS. Framed at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (with tiny slivers of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), The Punisher is placed on a dual-layered BD-50, and, despite the disc also containing two alternative cuts, it's mastered with a superb average video bitrate of 30 Mbps. This is sufficient to stave off compression artefacts, and it ensures the best presentation possible of this particular remaster - even if the master itself has a few shortcomings.
The company credits, as well as the opening title sequence, understandably suffer from noticeable gate weave and print damage, with black specks popping up frequently. However, clarity is highly impressive during the title sequence, particularly compared to the old VHS and DVD versions. The subsequent news broadcast is also rough since it was made to look like '80s video, but this is by design. Once we get to the movie proper, however, there is very little to complain about. The first generation material looks terrific, with finely-resolved grain and impressive fine detail. Thanks to the high bitrate, the grain regularly looks subtle and fine, as opposed to overly chunky or blocky. Close-ups, in particular, reveal ample texturing on skin and costumes - just see the close-ups of Lundgren during the torture sequence at the 44-minute mark, as some shots look razor-sharp and highly detailed. Clarity is good, with the transfer even remaining quite impressive during some of the climactic battles which take place in harsh red lighting. There's a slight smeariness to the transfer, though, especially under lower light, which shows evidence of grain management. One supposes that grain spiked considerably on the chosen print in darker sequences, which prompted the remaster team to apply some digital noise reduction. This is barely noticeable on smaller displays, but I picked up on it while viewing the disc on my 65" television.
Furthermore, minor print damage does crop out throughout the movie, with infrequent specks and hairs, as well as telecine wobble of varying severity. This print damage reinforces the grindhouse disposition of the film, however, and I can't say it bothered me too much. Your mileage may vary. Additionally, as to be expected, the quality of the transfer does take a slight hit during optical shots (i.e. whenever there's a fade), while wider shots also lack textural pop (61:38 is exceedingly soft), shadow detail is mediocre (see the shootout at the dock), and clarity is hit-and-miss whenever there's heavy smoke (see the nightclub scene at the 36-minute mark). There's also one optically zoomed-in shot at 38:20 (as pointed out by Goldblatt in his commentary track), which understandably looks soft. Added to this, although the colour palette suitably reflects the film's age, there is limited depth to the transfer, which appears a touch flat, and lacking in terms of contrast and inky blacks. The Punisher could look better in HD (or 4K) with a more expensive restoration, but I doubt there's much call for it. Aside from some minor flaws, this exploitation classic looks terrific for its HD debut, and the competent encode ensures there are no video artefacts like macroblocking, crush, aliasing or ringing.
Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, which might be a deal-breaker for those with hearing impairments.
Video Ratings Summary
The Punisher comes to Blu-ray with two audio options: a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, and an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 track, which is presumably the movie's original theatrical audio. For the purposes of this review, I concentrated on the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. I immediately noticed a distinct lack of surround channel activity, as the rear channels are barely engaged - there's hardly any noticeable extension of sound effects, dialogue, or even music, which makes this feel like a glorified 2.0 stereo track. I did detect some separation and panning, for instance outside the airport at 10:40, but, on the whole, surround activity is unaggressive and unremarkable. On the other hand, I did some cursory comparisons with the LPCM track, and the DTS mix is by far the winner - it's clearer, more precise, and sharper, with superior subwoofer activity. There is noticeable depth to the sound effects throughout the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which was a pleasant and satisfying surprise. Jake's car and Frank's motorcycle, for instance, engage the subwoofer with terrific low-end activity, while punches and kicks also exhibit adequate low-frequency effects. Every single gunshot and explosion sounds brilliantly deep, with nothing seeming unduly compressed.
Naturally, there are limitations to the stock sound effects, as well as the recording equipment of the era. The silenced gunshot sounds, for instance, still engage the low-end but sound a bit "tinny," since they were likely sourced from a sound effects library. Additionally, don't expect the clearest audio mix, as this isn't as pristine as a motion picture produced in 2020. But that's about the only remotely negative thing to level against this mix, aside from the unremarkable surround activity. Prioritisation is exceptional from start to finish, with perpetually understandable dialogue and deafening gunshots, and the music comes through cleanly. The audio has been appropriately remastered, as well. Indeed, I was unable to detect any significant source-related or encoding artefacts. There's some slight hissing during quieter scenes between lines of dialogue (see 30:38), but there's no popping, clicking, drop-outs or sync issues. Without rising to dizzying heights, The Punisher sounds very good on Blu-ray, with a few caveats. Like the video, it's a massive upgrade after years of VHS and DVD releases, with the lossless encoding and higher bitrate making The Punisher sound better than ever.
Audio Ratings Summary
|Surround Channel Use|
Umbrella has assembled the most comprehensive collection of special features to date for this cult classic. I wish there were more interviews, but this is still a satisfying set.
Unrated Cut (480i; 89:14) The unrated cut is presented here in 1.78:1 standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. It's encoded in 480i, at 29.970 fps. This is my preferred edition of the movie (though adding the prologue would make it definitive), as the action scenes feel more cohesive and there's more violence. The unrated inserts look very rough compared to the rest of the film, and were visibly taken from a VHS or Beta tape source. Around the time that Umbrella was prepping this Blu-ray release, German company Koch Media unearthed a film print of the unrated edition and scanned the additional shots in high definition to create a full HD version. It's a tremendous shame that Umbrella was unable to source this for the Blu-ray. Still, in the absence of the HD version, this is a smart inclusion.
Audio Commentary with Mark Goldblatt (Unrated Cut) An archival commentary that was reportedly recorded in 2012 for the German Blu-ray, Goldblatt comes in strong from the beginning to deliver a scene-specific audio commentary track of the unrated cut, covering as many bases as possible over the 89-minute running time. He discusses the project's genesis, shooting in Sydney, the main title sequence, choosing to cut the prologue, working with the various actors (Mel Gibson's brother, Donald, is given a special mention), and making the film with an Australian crew, as well as other assorted production memories. It's also interesting to hear the director stating that they were not aiming for a particular American city, despite a map of Seattle, Washington in Jake's office. Goldblatt outright admits that not including the skull t-shirt was a mistake, and it p***** off the fans. During the amusement park shootout, he explains that they filmed at Luna Park, which was closed and abandoned at the time of shooting in the late 1980s. Other topics include the importance of casting Aussie actors capable of convincing American accents, and he points out one shot which was optically blown up. The release and reception are covered in the track, too, with the film receiving mixed reviews and going straight to video in the United States. Additionally, Goldblatt was ordered to trim the violence for the film's American release to ensure an R rating, a decision which made him unhappy. Indeed, the unrated cut is Goldblatt's preferred version - a perspective that I stand behind. This is a solid commentary track, and I highly recommend giving it a listen.
Goldblatt Workprint (720p; 97:44) Here we have the original workprint version of The Punisher, which was transferred from a Beta tape personally owned by Goldblatt. It's presented in 1.78:1 standard definition (encoded in 720p) with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Understandably, it's in rough shape, with print damage in every frame and unpolished audio, to say nothing of the fact that the source is only SD. And yet, it's surprisingly watchable, especially compared to other workprints floating around online (I yearn for a watchable Hard Target workprint). As discussed in the main film review, this workprint adds a 20-minute prologue that should never have been cut in the first place. Aside from the fact that the prologue contains an expensive action sequence, it gives so much more context to the rest of the film (particularly in terms of character relationships), and it's all competently-staged to boot. It makes The Punisher a better film. (It also gives context to the otherwise baffling clip of Castle begging for his life while lying in bed - his kids were actually about to shoot him with water pistols.) This also contains the original version of the Castle vs. Franco fight (before the reshoots), and there are a couple of other additional scenes, including Jake briefly visiting Sam (Nancy Everhard) in hospital following the prison bus attack. This is a superb addition to Umbrella's disc, but it's disheartening that it's probably impossible at this point to track down the original film elements and be able to restore the prologue in high definition.
Violence Down Under: Interview with Mark Goldblatt (HD; 21:03) Here we have a brand new video interview with Goldblatt, who has much information to impart about the production process of The Punisher. There is inevitable overlap with the commentary, but it's not a huge deal. Goldblatt discusses getting the offer to make the film, rushing out to grab as many Punisher comics as he could for research purposes, meeting Stan Lee, his stance on the controversial violence in the film, and getting started in the field of filmmaking (he edited Piranha with Joe Dante). Goldblatt also goes over the rationale for not including the skull emblem on Frank's shirt, as it looked too goofy in his mind, though he ultimately regrets the decision. Other topics include casting, the setting of the film, shooting in Australia, the Aussie crew, the action sequences, conducting reshoots with a re-jigged ending, the movie being sold to Live Entertainment, the success of the VHS release, his subsequent editorial work on big movies (including Terminator 2, True Lies, and Starship Troopers), and more. There's a tonne of great information in this interview, and it's well worth watching. Weirdly, this is formatted in 4:3, with the image looking strangely squished.
Vengeance Is His: Interview with Dolph Lundgren (HD; 5:27) Dolph Lundgren is briefly interviewed here. This was filmed in a gym, seemingly right after Dolph had just finished working out. The actor talks about being approached for the film, the fight sequences, shooting in Australia (he previously lived and studied in Australia), and his disappointment in the final cut. Indeed, Dolph also wishes that the prologue was kept in the film. Like the previous extra, this is squished into 4:3.
Gag Reel (576i; 5:56) Now this is a real find. Set to the tune of the song "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, this is a marvellous collection of behind-the-scenes footage, raw footage, on-set goofing around, and outtakes. This was evidently assembled for the cast and crew at the end of the shoot.
Trailer (576i; 1:40) And lastly, the original trailer for The Punisher, presented in standard definition, open matte 4:3.
R4 vs R1
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The German special edition Blu-ray contains the following exclusives:
However, compared to the Umbrella disc, the German edition misses out on:
- Unrated Edition in restored high definition
- English subtitles
- Image Gallery
This is a very tough call. In my estimation, the HD unrated cut is indispensable, but the lack of lossless audio and the absence of the interviews is problematic. On balance, I'm giving the win to the Umbrella edition, though collectors will want to pick up both discs for the definitive Punisher experience. (Personally, I own the German steelbook, which I customised to contain both the German disc and the Umbrella disc - perfection!)
- Lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio
- Violence Down Under: Mark Goldblatt Interview
- Vengeance Is His: Dolph Lundgren Interview
At the time of writing, this is no American Blu-ray release. There's a UK Blu-ray, but it's completely barebones in terms of extras.
I understand why it was poorly received at the time, but I have always enjoyed the hell out of 1989's The Punisher. It's a violent, relentless '80s exploitation action movie, and it will appeal to fans of this genre.
Though there are minor shortcomings, The Punisher looks and sounds terrific for its Aussie Blu-ray debut. This is the first time I've seen the movie in high definition, and it was a treat - in fact, I found the movie more enjoyable this time around. Umbrella has also put together a high-quality assortment of extras, including two alternate cuts, a commentary, and a couple of interviews. This one comes recommended.
© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Friday, February 14, 2020
|DVD||Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output|
This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver.
This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
|Amplification||Samsung Series 7 HT-J7750W|
|Speakers||Samsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up|