Talking Movies [Punisher Month]: The Punisher (1989)

Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?

Released: 25 April 1991
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Distributor: New World International
Budget: $9 million
Stars: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Nancy Everhard, Barry Otto, Jeroen Krabbé, and Kim Miyori

The Plot:
After his family are killed by a mafia-planted car bomb intended for him, former ex-Marine Frank Castle (Lundgren) has taken to a life of vigilantism as “The Punisher”; killing criminals and mobsters with special skull-engraved knives and operating from the sewers, he has become New York’s most wanted man. However, when crime boss Gianni Franco (Krabbé) comes out of retirement and butts heads with Lady Tanaka (Miyori) of the Yakuza, the Punisher is the only man capable of stopping all-out war in the streets.

The Background:
Having made an impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. This, in turn, led to him appearing in videogames, cartoons, and a surprising amount of live-action adaptations of the source material. The first of these was produced in 1989 at the end of the action movie renaissance of the 1980s; muscle-bound stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone had redefined the criteria for the action genre but Dolph Lundgren was no slouch in that department either. The Swedish strongman made quite a name for himself in his own right, even if he was often overshadowed by Schwarzenegger, and adapting the Punisher character into the trappings of an eighties action film made perfect sense at the time. Sadly, the bizarre decision was made to not have Lundgren don the character’s iconic skull shirt and The Punisher was denied a widespread theatrical release in favour of being released straight to video. While most reviews agreed that the film was unimpressive, to say the least, and criticised its presentation and content, others praised Lundgren’s performance and the dark and gritty nature of the movie, though it would be nearly fifteen years before the character would receive another live-action adaptation.

The Review:
The Punisher opens with a depressingly low budget title sequence that’s like something out of a sixties James Bond film; rather than getting you pumped up for a high-octane action film, it’s more like the opening to a bog standard television cop show from the seventies, despite the brief shots of the Punisher gearing up or randomly unloading his machine gun. In many ways, this sets up the tone for the film but, at the same time, misrepresents The Punisher; while it’s not quite the same over-the-top spectacle as the likes of Commando (Lester, 1985) or Rambo III (MacDonald, 1988), it’s a decent enough representation of its genre that is, perhaps, unfairly overlooked against its other, more popular counterparts.

After five years killing mobsters, the Punisher goes public to enact his revenge.

Frank’s tragic background is initially reduced to a brief news report (we later get a proper flashback that shows it but, again, this is more of a snippet rather than an extended sequence) that informs us that the man responsible for the death of Frank’s family, Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall), has been acquitted for the charges. Moretti arrogantly laughs off concerns about the Punisher seeking retribution against him, despite the fact that Frank has become a notorious underworld vigilante and has at least 125 kills to his name. As you might expect, Moretti’s arrogance is misplaced and Frank not only murders his armed bodyguards one by one but also blows up the mobster’s stately home in a very public display.

While there’s not much for Leary to do, Berkowitz has an emotional connection to the Punisher.

The Punisher is a hot news item; though they are unaware of his true identity, reporters are desperate to cover him and milk his violent actions but the police, and the mayor, would prefer to downplay his actions. After the Punisher appears to die in the explosion at Moretti’s house, the official line is that he is dead but his former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Gossett Jr.), refuses to let the subject lie. Although he has no interest in working with a partner, and has become quite jaded since Frank’s apparent death in a mob hit, Berkowitz is convinced to work with Detective Samantha Leary (Everhard) when she shares his suspicion that Frank is the Punisher. Leary uses what is sold to us as a state-of-the-art computer algorithm to pinpoint the Punisher’s location, which is pretty much her sole contribution to the film other than being a very basic audience surrogate. Berkowitz, however, is a constant highlight of the film; his relatable, no-nonsense attitude stands out amidst a few mediocre performances, with his escape from Mafia custody stands out as a notably amusing sequence. His emotionally-charged reunion with Frank is another standout moment; Berkowitz desperately tries tor each Frank, screaming and manhandling him and clearly heartbroken at the state Frank has found himself in, while Frank remains impassive and unapologetic for his actions.

Already weakened from the Punisher’s actions, Franco wages all-out war with the Yakuza.

The traditional, mostly Italian-American world of organised crime is shaken up by the arrival of the Yakuza. Led by Lady Tanaka, the Yakuza strikes with silent, surgical precision and effectiveness and are easily able to consolidate a stranglehold on the criminal underworld thanks to the Punisher thinning out the competition. Their presence, and the Punisher’s actions, force former kingpin Gianni Franco (Krabbé), a well-dressed and eloquent mobster, out of retirement; to sway him and the remaining Mafia family members into agreeing to a lop-sided alliance with her, Lady Tanaka arranges to have the mobster’s children kidnapped. Tanaka is portrayed as a cold, calculating, merciless foe who willingly slaughtered her own brother and employs any means necessary to get her way while still being confident and cultured and exuding a quiet menace and authority. This is in stark contrast to the hot-headed Mafia Dons, who are driven to the point of desperation by recent events and find themselves easily outmatched at every turn by both the Punisher and the Yakuza.

Frank is convinced to expand his focus from vengeance to rescuing the kids.

One of the kids taken by Tanaka is Franco’s son, Tommy (Brian Rooney), who, unlike the other hostages, is completely unaware of his father’s criminal activities. Having successfully culled much of the Mafia’s numbers in the five years since he became the Punisher, Frank is content to let the remnants fight and kill themselves and has no interest in saving the children or getting involved in the brewing war between the Mafia and the Yakuza. However, he is swayed into action after a guilt-trip from one of his few allies, “Shake” (Otto), a former stage actor turned vagrant who informs Frank of underworld activities and gives him leads in exchange for alcohol.

The Nitty-Gritty:
When talking about the big action stars of the eighties, I can’t help but feel like Dolph Lundgren often gets overlooked; this isn’t massively surprising in a lot of ways as he was largely overshadowed by the bigger and more charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger and lacked the big-hit franchises associated with Arnold or Sylvester Stallone. Still, he was a pretty decent choice to portray the Punisher at the time despite never wearing the iconic skull-branded outfit of his comic book counterpart. Lundgren’s strained narration also peppers the film as he laments his lot in life and God’s apparent refusal to do anything to protect the innocent and punish the guilty and he throws himself into the action and fight scenes and exudes just the right level of stoicism, vulnerability, conviction, and capability that are so crucial to the Punisher’s characterisation (he even tosses in a bit of snark here and there when faced with agonising torture).

While not as bombastic as its peers, The Punisher still contains a decent amount of action.

As such, Lundgren’s portrayal of the Punisher is as a weary, disassociated man who has lived a life of such extreme violence and hardship that he has become numb to anything and everything around him. While you could argue that Lundgren simply comes across as bored, he excels in the film’s many action scenes, which are surprisingly varied, exciting, and full of gratuitous eighties-style gun fights, a ridiculous amount of explosions, blood squibs, and even some sword-based combat. Here, the Punisher is in his element and has a purpose but, when not in combat, he is a morose and sombre figure to be pitied, which is perfectly in keeping with the Punisher’s character. Best of all, unlike other eighties action heroes, the Punisher is not infallible; he gets hurt, feels pain, and regularly has to perform extreme surgery on himself to stem his wounds.

The Punisher remains a complex and layered character.

Again, this speaks to the Punisher’s roots as an anti-hero; he does good things by association but doesn’t head out into the night expecting to be heralded a hero. Instead, he is completely focused on the brutal eradication or organised crime; he walks (or rides) head-first into gun fights and rooms and crowds of armed opponents with no fear and protected only by his heavy arsenal and his force of will. When captured and tortured by Lady Tanaka, Frank refuses to give in to the pain and expertly breaks free of his bonds to save Shake when he is subjected to the same torture and, when Berkowitz’s life is threatened by Franco, he agrees to an alliance with the remnants of the Mafia, which was a great way to emphasise the character’s adaptability and loyalty to his few allies.

Though lacking the iconic skull, Lundgren embodies the spirit of the character admirably.

The Punisher’s softer side also gets some play when he successfully rescues the kids from their captivity; it seems to be a constant truth that Frank’s hardened exterior cracks somewhat when kids are involved, which is understandable given that he was a father at one time, and it goes a long way to showing that there is still some humanity left in the character. Furthermore, Frank’s suicidal tendencies are also a notable factor in the film; as I mentioned, he makes very little effort to protect himself from damage (he literally refuses body armour for the finale) and walks into firefights without a second’s hesitation and is haunted by nightmares of his family’s murder but this attitude is made heart-wrenchingly explicit at the film’s conclusion. After entering into a frosty alliance with Franco, the Punisher wages all-out war against Lady Tanaka to rescue Tommy; this results in the once efficient Yakuza being reduced to little more than cannon fodder, Lady Tanaka receiving a skull-branded knife to the head, and Frank murdering Franco before Tommy’s eyes. When Tommy holds Frank at gunpoint,  Frank submits to his mercy, welcoming death but when the boy chooses not to pull the trigger, Frank briefly comforts him before warning Tommy not to follow in his father’s footsteps lest he have to punish the boy in the future and returns to his never-ending war against the guilty.

The Summary:
The Punisher is quite a brisk and inoffensive little action movie. It might not really measure up to some of its competition, and there are definitely better eighties action films out there, but you could do a lot worse than this. For me, the Punisher is a ridiculously easy character to adapt compared to his other more colourful and fantastical superhero counterparts; you simply get a rugged actor who can portray the character’s complex emotions, give him a gun and some knives, and put a lot of bodies in his path and, in that respect, The Punisher succeeds very well. Sure, other iterations of the character has done a better job of handling the character’s pathos and complex ideology and attitude but those aspects are still present in The Punisher. Frank Castle isn’t just some muscled up meathead who care barely string two words together and the film tries its best to explore the character’s fading humanity and mental instability; obviously, the typical bombastic eighties action mostly drowns a lot of these elements out but, again, that’s a good thing because who doesn’t like a bit of over-the-top eighties action? I’d even go as far as to say that it doesn’t really matter that Lundgren doesn’t wear the skull-shirt since he does a pretty good job of embodying the character regardless and, while it might be the worst of the three Punisher movies and lacking the star power of Commando and Rambo III, The Punisher is worth your time if you’re a fan of the character and the genre.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever seen The Punisher? If so, what did you think of it? Were you disappointed that Dolph Lundgren didn’t wear the skull-shirt or were you not really all that bothered? What did you think to the film’s action scenes and gratuitous violence? Were you a fan of Lundgren’s casting; if not, which eighties star would you have cast in the role? What did you think to the film’s portrayal of the Punisher and the overall plot and where would you rank this film against others in the genre and the other Punisher adaptations? What is your favourite eighties action movie? Which Punisher videogame, story, or adaptation is your favourite? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out my other Punisher content!

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