Looking back at The Punisher

Has time been kind to Dolph Lungren's 1989 incarnation of The Punisher? James looks back at this early Marvel comic adaptation...

I feel sure that everyone has regrets. Allow me to tell you about one of mine. In 1990, at the impressionable age of 14, a friend of mine came into possession of an ex-rental copy of a film called The Punisher. My best friend had seen the movie and told me it was so good, he’d watched it seven times in one day. As a big Marvel Comics fan, and harbouring an obsession with watching any kind of 18 certificate action movie I could, I agreed to a trade. In return for a big box videotape of The Punisher, I would give my friend my copies of The Punisher: War Journal issues six and seven, featuring an African set story guest starring Wolverine.

23 years later, and it’s fair to say I was robbed.

Towards the end of the 80s, The Punisher had become one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. He was hugely popular, and at one time had four books per month devoted to him. Unlike Spider-Man and The Avengers, The Punisher wasn’t a superhero. Some termed him an anti-hero. A former soldier turned police officer, Frank Castle saw his family brutally gunned down in New York City’s Central Park before vowing to a life of vengeance against wrong doers under the guise of The Punisher. Relentlessly violent, The Punisher was an uber-cool dark angel dealing with a more human breed of bad guy than his Marvel contemporaries, with whom he often clashed over his methods of justice.

Until Tim Burton’s Batman made mega bucks in 1989 and effectively kick started the superhero film boom that still maintains a stranglehold on mainstream movies today, comic book movies weren’t common place. We were told that James Cameron was toying around with Spidey, and there was that misstep of a Captain America movie, but the first really notable movie out of the Marvel gates was The Punisher. If there was one type of movie the 80s proved very good at producing, it was those in the action genre, and The Punisher would fit right in. 

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Early indications all pointed towards The Punisher being pretty decent. Mark Goldblatt would be handling directorial duties. His last job had been as second unit director on RoboCop. As for the man who’d be donning the trademark skull shirt, they’d chosen well. At the time, Dolph Lundgren was fast becoming one of the go-to guys for action leads. He’d established himself in Rocky IV before taking the lead roles in Red Scorpion and as He-Man in (the actually really good fun) Masters Of The Universe.

The cracks in The Punisher began to appear when the first shots of Lundgren were released exclusively through Marvel Age, Marvel’s monthly publication about all the other comics it was releasing that month. The moody black-and-white image of Dolph, with his hair dyed jet black and posing with a big gun in front of a motorcycle, looked like Frank Castle – apart from one thing. Where was the skull? The Punisher’s trademark shirt had been replaced by a beat-up leather jacket and black t-shirt. Fan outrage was rife. Yes, it did exist in the late 80s, but we had to be content with writing to letter pages to vent our anger back then.

The finished film ran into trouble almost immediately when it was banned in South Africa and failed to secure a US release due to New World Pictures’ bankruptcy, which was a huge blow, considering the majority of Marvel’s fan base was from the United States. But despite this, and the questionable wardrobe changes, hope was still high amongst Punisher fans. This was the first Marvel movie, and if it was good, then who knows what might follow?

No matter how insistent my best friend had been over the film’s brilliance, I can remember being more than slightly disappointed when I first saw The Punisher. Rewatching it before writing the piece did nothing to dissuade that feeling. 

The murky opening title sequence, in which a bunch of Hitchcockian circular graphics are interspersed with shots of The Punisher shooting away at what appear to be glass statues of various bad guys are presumably meant to pay homage to Japanese revenge thrillers and show that Castle is a man who will take down any criminal. In actual fact, it looks like a badly edited version of the opening scene in Scaramanga’s play room in the James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun.

We’re treated to a monologue from Lundgren next, in which he outlines his internal struggle for a peace that he will never find. The speech was more famously used in a sample by the band Biohazard for their song Punishment. But for the unimpressiveness of its title sequence, The Punisher actually begins pretty well. One of those slimy, mobster types has gotten away with something in court, but his celebrations are to be short lived. Shown in small, revealing glimpses, The Punisher follows him home to make sure he receives an explosive reception. The first time we see Lundgren as The Punisher, he’s surrounded by fire and destruction. It’s pretty cool.

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Next comes Basil Exposition in the form of Louis Gossett, Jr as Jake Berkowitz, Frank Castle’s former police partner and the only man who believes that Castle is The Punisher. It turns out The Punisher has offed 125 bad guys in the last five years while evading the cops. Castle has been officially declared dead, though how isn’t explained, but Berkowitz isn’t convinced. Gossett’s character, and his new partner Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard – remember her appearing alongside Greg Evigan in the underwater sci-fi movie Deepstar Six? What do you mean no?) serve as the relatable element of the film for the audience. They are there to move the story along between the scenes of flying limbs and bullets. 

The Punisher’s little criminal clear up is presenting something of a problem for the mob, so they call in the all-powerful Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) to run things. His bright idea is to unite all the families into one gigantic superpower, thereby making them unstoppable. Getting the inside knowledge from his annoying informant, Shake (Barry Otto) – a pointless character who speaks in rhyme for no other reason than he’s a failed actor – The Punisher learns that the first big operation will be a big drug deal down at the docks. Castle is all set to bust things up when a bunch of ninjas arrive and a bloodbath ensues. It seems that the Yakuza have taken an interest in uniting the New York side of things, and want their slice of the pie.

It’s with the introduction of the Yakuza that things start to fall apart in The Punisher. It’s not the first time we’ve had bad guy overload in a comic book movie. The film was doing fine with sending Castle up against a united NYC Mafia, and the arrival of the pantomime villainess Lady Tanaka and her never ending line of ninjas does nothing but muddy the film. Although vicious, she more frequently comes across as comical with her hissing of, “We are Yakooozarrr!”

It becomes apparent as to just why the makers of The Punisher have included a Japanese villain: it was so they could introduce plenty of martial arts sequences. The Punisher came at a time when martial arts scenes  were must haves in any action movie, and it seemed to matter little that it wasn’t in keeping with the ethos of the film’s source material. 

The film rumbles along with Castle being forced to team up with those he hates after the Yakuza kidnap the mob’s children as leverage against their US counterparts. Suddenly, the one-man vigilante is playing in a team and driving a bus full of kids. Thrilling isn’t the word you’d use for the majority of The Punisher’s second half. The action scenes don’t even deliver any impressive kills from our anti-hero, just the standard guns and knife stuff. There is nothing which stands out from the glut of plentiful death.

With hindsight, it appears that Mark Goldblatt wasn’t interested in making a comic book movie, but more an action movie loosely based on a comic book character. Apart from Lundgren’s look, the film has little resemblance to its source material. What starts out fine enough soon becomes just another genre film, with The Punisher just another tight-lipped action lead. This isn’t Dolph Lundgren’s fault, however; he’s far and away the best thing about the film, and he works with what he’s given, but apart from the name, the film could have been pretty much the same if it wasn’t based loosely on the comic.

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Almost 15 years later, The Punisher received a second crack at the big screen in a 2004 film starring Thomas Jane. Although that film wasn’t perfect, it was a rung up the ladder from this version. A third Punisher film sneaked out a few years ago, and if rumours are to be believed (and by rumours, I mean IMDb), then a fourth cinematic outing for the character could be with us next year. The thought of a Disney-financed version of The Punisher conjures up images of the character following John McClane down a PG-13 shaped hole. 

Perhaps it would be wise to test the water first by having the character appear in another Marvel movie. The Punisher made his debut in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, so an appearance in a future Marvel sequel might also make sense.

The first silver screen incarnation of Frank Castle was a misfire. Although it got a few elements of the character right and found itself a decent lead, it was a half-baked attempt to bring one of Marvel’s most popular characters to the screen. Dolph Lundgren went on to appear in much better action movies than this, and in this writer’s opinion, so did The Punisher. Now, I don’t suppose I could interest anyone in a trade?

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