Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it. Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations. Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store. I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away. Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable. Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest. Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining. So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.
709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway. Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt). He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize. Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past. As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature. They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.
Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are. Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact. As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them. Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly. Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.
The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent. There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments. Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are. The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire. It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly. It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it. In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor. This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien. It makes them more memorable and effective. The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design. Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film. The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.
Cinematography is gorgeous. A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight. Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas. Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting. Gorgeous really does encompass it all. The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life. The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story. There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life. Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.
Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan. First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey. He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people. They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous. Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him. Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well. The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role. I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator. Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes. I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films. Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.” Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf. By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.
The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston. He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well. As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story. He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role. However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure. Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it. They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story. Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.
I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful. I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld. Here, I absolutely love her! Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive. She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence. She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined. Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya. She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength. There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her. She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.
King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt. Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance. Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire. In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.
The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it. Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history. From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive. They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit. Again, nothing feels budget starved. There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life. The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic. For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.
The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters. Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me. It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves. They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward. All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.
Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen. Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life. There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing. The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout. This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company. That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure. I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it. This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience. The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly. This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!
Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen. Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on. However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way. Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films. Many were planned, but very few got a final product. None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons. The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense. In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender. But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?
Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit. Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher. His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police. Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits. However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence. Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia. They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them. Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto). Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.
I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle. He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders. He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life. He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt. He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior. On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work. He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal. Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor. The motorcycle is a nice fit as well. It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.
The supporting cast is decent enough. Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark. Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance. Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher. He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle. So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.
Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different. He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso. He’s too laid back. I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence. I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants. There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer. No one ever appears to be more than he can handle. It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.
In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed. Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills. At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency. That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.
The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery. Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere. From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative. What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak. There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family. He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome. Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back. Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us. Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante. He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society. He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned. That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy. The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character. The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture. They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.
So, does this film hit that mark? Decently so. I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character. Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle. What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.
Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget. Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited. Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting. Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood. This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot. And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea. The film itself was shot in Australia. Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York. So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal. Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film. Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida? I don’t think so. Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature. The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been. Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.
Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been. Nor did it have a quality director behind it. This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever. It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success. This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman. That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director. Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to. Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.