The Punisher (1989)

the punisher movie poster

Released on video at the same time I refused to watch anything without subtitles that wasn’t a miserable drama, I never caught the original “Punisher” (see yesterday’s review of the Thomas Jane instalment if you’d like a little background on the character). It reviewed terribly, with one of the nicest things said about it that it was “a boring one-man battle with never-ending action scenes.” But, dear reader, I have a rather different opinion, and would like to tell you how it’s both much better, while occasionally being just as bad as those reviews make out.

 

Backstory is dispensed with in a 30-second flashback / dream sequence, as NYPD’s finest Frank Castle sees the car containing his wife and kids blown up, due to him going after the Franco crime family. He officially dies in the blast, disappearing underground (literally) and becoming the Punisher, dedicated to bringing down organised crime.

 

Now, the first thing to notice is that the producers knew what they were doing when they hired Dolph Lundgren. He’s a big, strong, handsome guy, not the greatest actor in the world, but the great thing about the Punisher is, he’s an emotionally numb, withdrawn guy who exists solely for revenge, so the guy playing him doesn’t need to be a great actor! And Dolph is absolutely fine in the role, looking every bit the haunted soul with nothing else left to live for.

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Also cleverly, he’s surrounded by a couple of very good actors. Louis Gossett Jr plays his former partner Jake Berkowitz (if there’s a less likely guy for a name like Berkowitz, I’ve yet to see him); and Jeroen Crabbe (Dutch, and not really hiding his accent) plays mob boss Gianni Franco, returning to the US after Castle slaughters all the other lieutenants. The plot is nice and simple – as Castle works his way relentlessly through the mafia (a court case at the beginning tells us that 125 murders have been credited to him in the last five years), the Yakuza try and move in on their territory. Now, this must have been right at the beginning of the Yakuza becoming a thing in Western culture, because one of the cops says “Yaku-who?”, so some of the more cartoony elements of their representation are to be forgiven, I suppose. Alongside the mafia families trying to band together, the Yakuza and the Punisher, we’ve also got Berkowitz and new partner Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard) trying to convince the world that Frank Castle is still alive and working as the Punisher. She brings in computer modelling to try and work out where the Punisher lives, and Berkowitz mocks computers, only to be immediately proved wrong. I like those little moments of levity.

 

One of the many fun things about this is how the Punisher does not mess around. Even in Thomas Jane’s incarnation, he let a few people go, tried to be a decent guy, but Dolph starts at a run and never really lets up. People are violently murdered right from the off because this Punisher understands if you don’t put them 6 feet under they’ll just be back on the streets ruining the lives of innocent people in no time. “If you’re guilty, you will be punished”.

The Punisher (5)

ASIDE: I read while doing a bit of research for this that Joss Whedon, beloved nerd icon and director of the two Avengers movies, would kill the Punisher off and never bring him back if he were in charge of Marvel, saying he wants heroes who try and stop death, who don’t kill innocent bystanders – okay, in a fairly old interview, but nevertheless. Now, I’m a socialist and think prison is a poor solution to the problems of inequality, drug addiction and so on (while understanding the current system needs them), but given the other side of this argument is a character like Batman who goes out of his way to never kill anyone, I think I’m on the Punisher’s side. Batman sends his foes to Arkham Asylum, and every now and again one of them will escape, kill a ton of people, damage huge amounts of property, then get re-captured and put back in there. Batman’s been doing it for over 70 years, and I just want him to kill the Joker for good. In the world of superheroes where no-one ever dies and the same stories are told over and over again, one of the many reasons people tend to grow out of comics as soon as more complex storytelling options become available, someone like the Punisher is a breath of fresh air – he’s decided on his course in life and that is absolutely that.

 

The central chunk of the movie is the Punisher trying to rescue all the kids of the mafia bosses, who’ve been kidnapped by the Yakuza. Now, this isn’t the best bit, even though I can understand the movies giving him the Achilles heel of wanting to save kids (given that his own died); but it does give him the best of the movie’s many fight scenes, him against the two Yakuza underbosses. While I just thought it was a decent, brutal fight, it turns out that the two karate masters they hired for the roles insisted on doing their parts full-contact, so the reason it looked like it hurt was because it really hurt (Lundgren was a former European karate champion as well). The final fight, where he fights first the Yakuza boss Lady Tanaka and then Gianni Franco, is pretty weak by comparison. Actually, it’s pretty weak by comparison to any fight, and is the movie’s low point – sadly, it’s right at the end, which leaves a slightly sour taste.

 

This version of Frank Castle is quite a bit stupider than his Thomas Jane incarnation. That guy got the bad guys to do a lot of his work for him (by getting the boss to kill his wife and best friend, for example) whereas Dolph’s version is much more “kick the door open, kill everyone inside”. He’s also a lot crazier, kneeling in front of a shrine in his sewer home, filthy and completely naked, asking God to give him advice on how to act; plus, he shows an indifference to his own safety that borders on suicidal, as he refuses body armour while on his way to storm the Yakuza building at the end. The only time he ever seems happy is when he’s in the middle of slaughter, which is a layer of the character that Thomas Jane didn’t feel comfortable getting into, it would seem. The 2008 Ray Stevenson version is another kettle of fish entirely, but we’ll get to him later.

The Punisher (3)

I think it’s handy when watching this movie to remember it was made the same year as Tim Burton’s first “Batman” movie. While it’s obviously a different beast, it has a stronger tie to that than it does the other “Punisher” movies, or any of the recent slew of superhero efforts. It captures the feel of the comics of the time remarkably well and has a great look to it. Plus, it’s an awesome late 80s action movie in the same mold as so many other “video shop classics”.

 

I’m as surprised as you are, readers, but I think I actually prefer this version to the 2004 one. There’s a lot to be said for a movie that dispenses with the backstory and just gets into it – and this one doesn’t pretend to shy away from the more unpleasant parts of the Punisher’s psyche. He’s a filthy murdering lunatic who’s lived in the sewers for five years, whose only friend is a drunk actor / hobo. He knows as well as we do that his actions haven’t really made the city any better, crime is still rampant, but it’s what he’s been driven to.

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If they were ever going to do a movie about the end of the Punisher’s life, I’d quite like to see Dolph take on the role again. He’s 58 now, but he’s still a big strong-looking guy, and having him fight the Kingpin (his last antagonist in the series of comics started by Garth Ennis) before retiring permanently would be interesting to watch.

 

A surprising sleeper gem, and one I think you should give a try to. Not perfect by a long shot, but extremely entertaining. One last thing, as every review must mention it by nerd law – he doesn’t wear the iconic skull t-shirt at any point. But, perhaps deciding it was too cheesy, they still put a very large reference to it right on Lundgren’s face. Check out the below screenshot and compare the shape of his stubble to the shape of the famous skull – perhaps it was too subtle for the comics fans. Maybe they were expecting to lose the rights and wanted to make sure they could retrofit it to “Generic Revenge Guy” without too many problems?

 

Rating: thumbs up

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