Director: Mark Goldblatt
Comic book movies have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the Superman serials in the 1940s and 1950s. It seems like you can't go a few months nowadays without a high-profile movie based on a comic book being released. Most of them are awesome, but let's face it, there's been a lot of crappy comic movies. Steel and Tank Girl are prime examples. And the truth of the matter is that most bad comic movies have been based on Marvel properties. Before Blade and X-Men, Marvel had to deal with Captain America, a bad '70s TV-movie based on Dr. Strange, and a Fantastic Four movie produced by Roger Corman that has only seen the light of day through bootleggers at comic book conventions. And let's not forget the epic disaster that was Howard The Duck, which many consider one of the worst movies ever made. Another Marvel movie lost in the shuffle was The Punisher. While the Punisher movie released in 2004 was a modest hit, the one released in 1989 didn't get a theatrical release in America. Instead, it went directly to video, not stopping to pass "Go" or collect 200 dollars.
Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was one of the finest police officers to ever wear a badge. Presumed dead after a Mafia-placed car bomb killed his wife and children, Castle has become a one-man army labeled "The Punisher." Living in the sewers as a shadowy vigilante, Castle is a killing machine responsible for the murder of 125 mobsters in the five years since the death of his family. With many of the families decimated by Castle, lead gangster Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) comes in to bring the separate families together as one unit. His plan soon attracts the attention of the Yakuza, Japan's most powerful crime syndicate, who decide to take over the interests of Franco's families. Yakuza boss Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) orders her troops to kidnap their children and gives the mobsters an ultimatum: let the Yakuza run the show, or the kids meet the business end of a Yakuza beating. Castle is informed of the mass kidnapping and stages a daring rescue that includes demolishing an underground casino, getting captured and tortured, and hopping on a bus and being chased by Yakuza thugs.
The rescue is successful, but Castle ends up getting caught and arrested. He's stuck in a maximum security prison, where he's interrogated by his former partner, Jake Burkowski (Louis Gossett Jr.). Jake's spent the better part of the past five years hunting for Castle, and isn't exactly happy that his friend is going to be convicted and sent to the electric chair. What's to stop his defense attorney from pleading not guilty via insanity? Ol' Frank watched the murder of his family, walks around naked in the sewers, suffers from extreme insomnia, and has morbid conversations with God about the morality of killing people. Throw in the fact that he's essentially a serial killer that targets mobsters, and the guy's got a big ol' bucket of issues. Luckily for Frank, he's intercepted by the Mafia while being transported to his arraignment hearing. Franco asks Castle to save his still-missing son from the Yakuza, but Frank not-so-subtly informs him that he's not interested in the business proposal. So Franco does what any good mobster does: he threatens to kill Jake if Castle doesn't play ball. Rather than let Jake die, Castle decides to kill two birds with one stone in a climax that settles the age-old debate of who would win in a fight: the Italian Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, or the pissed-off Swede with the giant cache of machine guns?
The movie definitely has its ups and its downs. Dolph Lundgren is stellar as the Punisher, playing the role as a heartless psychopath that's completely detached from both society and reality. He had the look down, too. But in all honesty, I can't decide if he looked like a badass vigilante or a heroin junkie. (Or if he looks like a badass vigilante strung out on heroin?) Maybe if they'd given him a trenchcoat and let him wear the trademark Punisher skull, I could tell. But anyway, Dolph fits the role really well, and it's a shame the movie didn't hit American theaters. If he had, he'd have more than one role that he was known for. I thought Rocky IV was awesome, but I'm willing to bet that Dolph would want a little fame outside of one role. Then again, what would you rather have stuck on your résumé for the rest of eternity: Rocky IV or Masters of the Universe? Anyway, the supporting cast is also commendable, with the notable ones being Louis Gossett Jr. as the stereotypical "ex-partner who's the only one who knows what's going on" and Nancy Everhard as Jake's sidekick Sam. Kim Miyori plays her role as well as could be expected, but she wishes she were only half as cool as Lucy Liu in Kill Bill. Wait a second, an idea's forming. The Punisher: A Quentin Tarantino Film. Somebody call QT and see if he'd direct Punisher 2, because I'd see it a zillion times.
The movie is severely lacking in the character development department, but with this style of movie, it doesn't matter. The movie is just a vehicle for Lundgren to be a big brooding tough guy that rarely speaks while he wreaks havoc on a major scale. Sure, the movie might be based on a comic book, but it's just the same as any other action movie from the 80s. Just take Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone out and replace them with Dolph Lundgren, and that's what you've got here. Everything from Mark Goldblatt's direction and Ian Baker's cinematography to Dennis Dreith's score are very typical for genre movies at the time. What seperates The Punisher from movies like Commando and the Rambo trilogy is how cheap some of the sets look. The movie supposedly had a $10,000,000 budget, but I guess most of it went into buying guns and setting up the pyrotechnic effects, because the sets near the end of the movie look like they were made for fifty bucks to use on a public access TV show. But what can you expect? It's all getting blown up in the end, so who cares what it looks like? Boaz Yakin's script also has some weird political commentary on the Japanese. We're supposed admire them because ninjas are cool, but we should hate them because they're coming in and usurping everything. The Yakuza come in and start displacing the mobsters, sort of like how everything in the 80s had that little "Made In Japan" sticker on them instead of "Made In The USA." Maybe this Boaz Yakin dude has something against Japan, or maybe it's just a weird coincidence. But it's an 80s action movie, so it doesn't have to be nice or make sense or anything like that. Besides, the Japanese goons in the movie aren't exactly physically intimidating, so Dolph has an extremely easy time killing them until they die.
Yes, folks, there is much havoc to be wreaked, bullets to be shot, stuff to be exploded, and bad guys to be killed. If you like that, this movie's for you. If not, you're not missing out on much. If you're looking for the definitive Punisher movie, go with the one from 2004. Two stars for this one.
Final Rating: **