When Frank Castle’s family is murdered by criminals, he wages war on crime as a vigilante assassin known only as the Punisher.
Let’s face it, before Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), Marvel Comics really didn’t have much luck in getting successful films made based on their characters. The reason? Because they would often sell the movie rights to anyone who had two coins to rub together, releasing cinematic flops like Dr. Strange (1978), Howard the Duck (1986), Captain America (1989), and even a Fantastic Four movie that was so bad it never saw the light of day, as it was too bad to even release on video. And then there was The Punisher (1989), a character introduced in the 70’s within the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 129, circa February 1974, a former police detective, now vigilante, taking revenge on criminals, motivated by the death of his family. Most people I know who’ve seen the film have pretty distinctive feelings about it, ranging from dislike to severe hate, but I always thought it was pretty good, considering…
The film, directed by Mark Goldblatt, whose primary credits include editing films like The Howling (1981), The Terminator (1984), and True Lies (1994), stars Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Jerome Krabbé. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…Dolph Lundgren? I think a number of people had instant reservations when hearing Dolph, certainly an interminable dweller of the B movie circuit, pre-judging the film unfairly. Lou Gossett, Jr. brings a little star power to the table, but he also is no stranger to B movie fans appearing in films like Jaws 3-D (1983), Firewalker (1986), and any of the four or so Iron Eagle films.
The film opens with a television news report, giving us some expository background with regards to a mafia type recently acquitted of the crime of killing detective Frank Castle (Lungren) and his family five years prior. The report also speaks of an elusive character named the Punisher, who has been busy killing members of the mafia over the last five years, racking up an impressive body count. Any connection? Probably…anyway, the mafia guy, returns home to celebrate, and guess who crashes the party? Killing and explosions ensue. Enter Detective Jake Berkowitz (Gossett). Seems Detective Berkowitz has been leading the investigation of the Punisher for the last five years, and believes the Punisher is actually Frank Castle, despite his superior’s beliefs that Castle is dead, as the thought of a rogue cop going around killing people would be unpopular. With the recent death of this mafia boss, there’s a void of real leadership in the organization, one filled with the return of Gianni Franco (Krabbé) from Europe, who intends to unite the remains of the various mob families whose ranks have been severely depleted by you know who…
Turns out the decimation of the mafia families hasn’t gone unnoticed, as the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) has decided to move in and take a controlling interest in criminal activities within the city, a hostile takeover, to say the least. Sounds pretty to the Punisher, as if the criminals are killing themselves off, less work for him…until the Yakuza kidnaps children of the remaining mafia families in an effort to extort control and pressure them under the Yakuza’s thumb. So Castle, feeling somewhat responsible as his five-year vendetta has left the families unable to protect even their own children, begins dealing with the Yakuza, which eventually leads to an unlikely alliance with Franco, who’s son is one of the kidnapped children.
Guns, knives, throwing stars, explosions, it’s all here (well, as far as the explosions, at one point the Punisher is firing a grenade launcher, and the explosions seem less than spectacular, more flashy than boom boomy). Not only that but there’s a good amount of karate. Lundgren, a former karate champion himself, performs most all of his own stunts, and there is almost no choreography within the marital arts scenes, as real artists were used, and training in stunt techniques. Does the film stay true to the original character portrayed in the comics? For the most part…some minor changes, along with a few major ones (he never dons a shirt emblazoned with a white skull on it). I think one of the main reasons this film was ill received is because comic fans are a particular picky lot, as they spend a lot of time getting to know these characters, and tend to have high expectations when someone adapts one of their favorite characters to the silver screen. I read comics from the age of 9 until I was 23, so I have intimate knowledge, or at least I did, of many characters, and I thought this particular rendition of this character retained most of the important elements. The main element I didn’t care for was his living in the sewers. I brought to mind teenage mutant ninja turtles, which is an altogether different film. I did think Lundgren face makeup was overdone. I understand why it was done the way it was, to present the visage of a skull when the light hit his face just right, and it succeeded, but other times he sort of looked like a drag queen. The most painful element of the film was the dialog. I rolled my eyes more than a few times as the delineation between Frank Castle and the Punisher was examined, unsuccessfully. Some of it was extremely corny, more so combined with Lundgren’s deadpan delivery. The direction was pretty good in most areas, given that this was Goldblatt’s second film, his first being the Joe Piscopo/Treat Williams cop flick Dead Heat (1988). Goldblatt has since returned to editing, which seems a much better fit for him. Gossett is fun to watch, but again, given the dialog, he is given some completely rotten lines, but he does seem to try to make the best of it, earning whatever he got for appearing in this film.
A nice wide screen anamorphic print here and good audio, with special features including production notes and a theatrical trailer.