November 7, 2011

Movie Mondays: The Punisher

Title: The Punisher
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Robert Mark Kamen and Boaz Yakin (based on the works of Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita Sr)
Distributed By:
New World Pictures and Artisan Entertainment
Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr, Joroen Krabbé, Barry Otto, Kim Miyori, Nancy Everhard
Release Date:
October 5, 1989 (International); April 25, 1991 (US)
Rated R

Hey there everybody! Welcome to part one of our month long look into the gritty, seedy, violent world of Frank Castle…otherwise known as The Punisher! Throughout the month we’ll be taking a look at his various forays into the film industry, as well as looking at the franchise as a whole! Be sure to check it out, it’s gonna be a blast!

In 1974, The Punisher first appeared in comics as a guest character, and then his own mini-series in 1986, and finally his own comic book series in 1987. In 1989, he starred in his own feature film.

The Punisher

Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle, aka The Punisher

Dolph Lundgren knocks it out of the park as the psychotic, homicidal vigilante Frank Castle. After the mob kills his wife and two kids, Castle is severely traumatized and decides to go underground, and go outside the law to punish the criminals the system can’t stop. He manages to pull off the angst-ridden stone-cold killer attitude mixed with the dark humor and sarcasm found in the character with the greatest of ease.

In one scene, he sits in his lair, questioning God:
“Come on, God, answer me. For years I’m asking why, why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment? Or have you already answered, have you already said to the world here is justice, here is punishment, here, in me.”
Lundgren’s delivery exudes just the right mixture of seriousness and melodrama needed for an adaptation of this character.

Meet the Cast!

The supporting cast is, for the most part, pretty terrific. Joroen Krabbé is convincing as the mob boss/caring father, and brings a level of legitimacy to his character that is sorely lacking among every other criminal character in the film.  Louis Gossett Jr. delivers the strongest performance in the film, portraying The Punisher’s former friend, Jake, who’s on a quest to redeem Frank Castle, and make some sense out of the world of insanity and violence Frank’s life has become. Barry Otto gives the most entertaining performance as Shake, a disheveled, possibly even homeless, man Frank seems to take care of in exchange for information. Nancy Everhard performs well as the enthusiastic and eager cop who befriends Jake when she becomes his partner.

The other heavies in the film, the various criminal scumbags and so on, are the only real detractors from this film, hamming it up in what can only be described as good old fashioned 80s cheese.

Dennis Dreith provides a rather well rounded and very well developed score, adding the perfect underlying layers of emotion and intensity for the film as a whole, never overpowering the scene, but never feeling pointless either.

The director of this movie happens to be Mark Goldblatt, who was the second unit director on RoboCop and the editor on films like Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Terminator, and Commando. And it shows, especially during the action sequences.

Skull shape

Can you see the Skull Shape in his face?

The film has a few missteps, to be sure. The most common complaint is about the lack of The Punisher’s trademark “Skull” emblem. Apparently there have been reports of licensing issues where the studio had rights to the name, but not the image of the character. But they were a little clever and a little artistic with their solution to this problem. If you watch the film closely, you’ll see that the dirt, grime, and 5 o’clock shadow on Fank’s face form the image of a skull.

Also, ALL of the non-major characters with speaking roles (except the drunk in the bar), i.e. the gangsters, should never be allowed to act again for how bad they ham up every scene they’re in. There are also a few continuity goofs involving props sprinkled throughout the film, but this is a problem shared by even the best of films.

Overall, aside from a few problems, like not referencing Castle’s military background (though the film never states he WASN’T in the military; and apparently dialog addressing Frank as an ex-marine was cut from the final version of the film), and the lack of any named characters from the comics (though by this point all we really had was Jigsaw and Microchip), the film manages to remain decently faithful to the source material, capturing the violence, psychosis, and dark humor often attributed to the character and stories.

Ham and Cheese

All of the minor characters are hammed-up cheesy stereotypes.

I mean seriously, we get dialog like this:
“What the fuck do you call 125 murders in five years?”
“Work in progress.”

OR, when being tortured, we get Castle answering questions like:
“Who sent you?!”
“There’s a limit to revenge, you know?”
“I guess I haven’t reached mine yet.”

Even as the film’s villainess leaves The Punisher to be tortured to death, he nonchalantly tells her to “Have a nice day.” Priceless!

This is gonna hurt.

One of the saddest aspects of this film is that of its release. Due to the studio going bankrupt, it was never released theatrically in America. In fact, it would take a whole two years for the film to be released in the States, even on video. Also, due to censorship issues, the film was never released theatrically in Sweden. Two huge missed opportunities. A movie about an American comic book icon starring quite possibly the biggest (literally and figuratively) thing in movies to come out of Sweden (and already rather famous for his performance in Rocky IV)…doesn’t get released in America or Sweden?! Being released two years later in the wrong decade, and not getting released in the two countries where it would have performed the best?! Come on!!! That’s just messed up! Had this not been the case, I think this film would have been much more successful.

If you’ve seen this film before, take time to watch it again. If you’ve never seen it before, do yourself a favor and be sure to check it out. It’s well worth your time.

Judging the film as an adaptation of the comic, I’d give it a 7.
But as a film in general, overall, I’d give it a solid 8.5 out of 10.

Be sure to check out next week’s installment where we discuss the next attempt to bring Frank Castle to the movies, with the 2004 version of The Punisher.

Aaron Nicewonger



  1. Ben

    I haven’t seen that movie since I was a little kid, and after reading this, I’m going to have to go find myself a copy!

  2. norse_sage

    Nice review, and a great character to feature the upcoming month!

    There is however one factual error in there I have to point out:
    There were no licensing issues. Never. They were free to use ANYTHING they wanted from the Punisher comics, skull emblem and everything.

    The director and producers omitted the skull emblem, among other things, for the sole purpose of creating as much distance from the comic as possible. Director Mark Goldblatt had no understanding of or respect for the comic, and no intention of making a comicbookmovie.

    Writer Boaz Yakin was a huge fan of the comic, and the one who made the movie happen in the first place. His original script had the skull emblem feature prominently, but his script and the finished movie are worlds apart. This was a very troubled production, with open conflicts between writer Yakin and director Goldblatt. Blows were traded in the trades at the time, but none of these exist on the internet today. Some of the fallout does however, like here:

    I am a huge Punisher fan, and this is my least favorite Punisher movie. The lack of the skull is such a minor issue amongst the numerous others that it doest even really matter to me. What does matter, and makes the movie unbearable as a Punisher movie are as follows:

    A: In changing the Punishers origin, Frank Castle’s entire philsophical foundation and justification for becoming the Punisher at all is lost.

    B: The Punisher in this movie isn’t so much the Punisher as he is a stark raving mad hobo, a nutcase who sits naked in the sewer and talks with God. That’s a slippery slope right there.

    As a Punisher movie, this is in my opinion a resounding failure. For the filmbuff however, it may be an interesting prequel of sorts to “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995) – as the Street Preacher character in it, also played by Dolph Lundgren, is the natural evolution of the Punisher as he is portrayed in this movie.

    Looking forward to the upcoming reviews!

  3. Aaron Nicewonger

    Thanks for the input. And thanks for that link.
    It’s a great bit of info from Mr. Boaz Yakin.
    As I said. I had heard reports that the “skull” issue was a matter of rights/licensing.
    Also, that link doesn’t say that there weren’t issues with the rights. It just addresses the fact that Kamen and Goldblatt didn’t approve of it.
    I’d love to read more on the subject.

    I’ve got to disagree with points A and B, though.

    The movie still has Frank Castle as a man who’s family was murdered by the mob.
    Also, in the script there’s actually a line or two that specifically address Castle as an ex-Marine.
    It’s sad that this aspect didn’t make it into the film.

    As for the “nutcase” remark.
    I see The Punisher as a psychopath. So, him being stark raving mad is fine by me. And talking to God, especially what he says on the subject, is totally in keeping with his character.

    At least it’s not like the Garth Ennis storyline from 2003, where Castle’s origin states he was possessed (essentially) by a supernatural entity.

    Or in the first retcon from 1986, that has Franks actions and personality explained as the product of being subjected to mind-altering drugs.

    I’m glad to have such an informed reader.
    I’m also glad that you’re looking forward to the next articles.

    I hope you enjoy reading them and talking about them as much as I love writing them.

  4. norse_sage

    Regarding the rights issue – I’d be surprised if writer Boaz Yakin, who also made the movie happen in the first place, was not aware of any restrictions concerning the character rights.

    He has always been bitter at Goldblatt and the producers for not wanting to do a proper Punisher adaptation, while they were bitter at him for writing the script of a comicbookmovie, something they made the creative choice not to do, and then having the gall not to be happy.

    I haven’t been able to find any of Goldblatt’s verbal blows from the time, but in a 2008 interview he again confirmed that omitting the skull was a purely creative choice on their part – implication being that the option of having the skull was very much so on the table. r-mark-goldblatt-the-punisher/

    Regarding the issues I have with the movie more so than the lack of skull:

    A: While Frank Castle being a Vietnam vet is central; him being a special solider with multiple tours of duty on his belt is vital. Castle is a war junkie. War is in his blood. If the civilized system fails to right a wrong, he will do so himself, the only way he knows how: War. For a police officer on mob detail, this is not a natural response, and an unjustifiable one at that. His family died in a carbomb targeting him, which gives him full justification to kill those directly responsible for the death of his family, but not really anyone else. Crime did not kill his family, specific persons did. I’ll expand more on this when we get to the 2004 movie, for it is even more relevant there.

    B: Talking to God. I find this deeply disturbing. Frank Castle, both of the comics (you refer to when he was under the influence of mind altering drugs, and comment Ennis had to make in reference to the previous Angel miniseries, none matter) and 2004 and 2008 movies, is a sane man in that he is rational, he knows what he is doing, and he has a clear moral codex which he will not breach. Only criminals need fear him. Not so with the Dolph Punisher. This guy sits naked and talks with God. In the sewers. And he wonders why God doesn’t answer. Well, for someone that far gone, it is only a matter of time before he will get an answer – From the voices in his head. And who knows what they might tell him? Who else must be punished? Lawyers? Politicians? Students? This guy has deep mental issues no other incarnation of Frank Castle has. Without medication, his condition represents a threat to many more than just criminals.

  5. Aaron Nicewonger

    Yeah. I saw that article (the second one you linked). It’s a really good article. Very informative.

    As for your issues with the film. I’ve got to disagree with a few things.
    “His family died in a carbomb targeting him, which gives him full justification to kill those directly responsible for the death of his family, but not really anyone else. Crime did not kill his family, specific persons did.”

    The specific persons could be representative of crime. The same goes for any costumed hero with that motivation.
    Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil. Specific people were responsible for the deaths of parent(s) or uncles (essentially a father). But that still spurred them to wage a one-man war on crime.

    “Frank Castle… and 2004 and 2008 movies, is a sane man in that he is rational, he knows what he is doing, and he has a clear moral codex which he will not breach. ”

    Being a psycho doesn’t mean he have a codex guiding him.
    Again. The sanity of any super-hero really comes into question. He’s basically a Batman that kills. He’s a Daredevil who’s lost all faith in the system.
    The sanity of the character is not factual. But a subjective matter of opinion. The Punisher knows right from wrong (in his stark/skewed view of it), and acts accordingly, and he’s screwed up in the head. He’s suffered severe trauma which he’s never going to recover from.

    “This guy has deep mental issues no other incarnation of Frank Castle has. Without medication, his condition represents a threat to many more than just criminals.”

    I wholeheartedly disagree with that sentiment.
    If he had these issues, and others were at risk, he wouldn’t have risked his life to save the children.
    He wouldn’t have teamed up with a major criminal to save the life of washed up recovering alcoholic cop and little boy.

    But this is all really just a matter of speculation on our parts.

  6. Aaron Nicewonger

    By the way. Have you ever read the Comics adaptation?
    I’m buying it Friday. I hear it’s more faithful to the original script that Boaz worked out.

  7. Mike V

    Actually, I think Jonathan Hensleigh summed up Castle pretty good when he said the character is a functioning psychopath.

    And I don’t see how changing the origin loses the characters justification for becoming the Punisher, in this movie or the 2004 movie. He loses his family, and the police do nothing about it. That in my view is the crux of why he becomes a vigilante, not the randomness of the violence.

  8. Mike V

    Also, how screwy is it that a Dolph Lundgren movie from 1989 has better acting performances than Punisher: War Zone?

    If you were to rank the movies by acting it would have to go:
    The Punisher (2004)
    The Punisher (1989)
    Punisher: War Zone

  9. Aaron Nicewonger

    I agree with what you say about the “functioning psychopath” comment.

    But as far as acting…
    I’d put it:
    The Punisher ’89
    The Punisher ’04
    Punisher: War Zone ’08

  10. norse_sage

    I actually have the comicbook adaptation in the attic somewhere, next to “The Punisher vs Archie” and the “‘Nam” specials. Don’t really rember it, but I do believe there was a skull, as it was based on Boaz Yakin’s script, not the finished movie.

    As for the sanity of the Dolph Punisher, of course it’s just my opinion, conjecture is all we have to go on. But as I see it, that guy is not stable in the way other versions of Frank Castle are. Sure he might not pose an immediate threat to criminals right now, but for how long?

    The other Frank Castle’s are determined and singleminded, but functional. They know what they are doing and why, and they are fundamentally functional. They have chosen to cut themselves off from humanity, but if they wanted to hang up their weapons and go back, they could. I’m not too sure about the Dolph Punisher though. He might know what he is doing, but I question his grap on reality, his sanity, and his basic to function outside of the sewers. And he seems to be slipping further.

    We can agree to disagree on that one, but is how I see it, and my biggest issue with the movie.

  11. Aaron Nicewonger

    “next to “The Punisher vs Archie” and the “‘Nam” specials.”

    Hehe! Awesome. I’ve got both “The Punisher vs Archie” and “Archie vs The Punisher”. And I gave up a copy of “The Punisher invades The ‘Nam” so my friend could add it to his ‘Nam collection.

    “But as I see it, that guy is not stable in the way other versions of Frank Castle are. Sure he might not pose an immediate threat to criminals right now, but for how long?”

    Did you mean non-criminals? I assume you did, because of your previous post. And because he’s already an immediate threat to criminals.

    “We can agree to disagree on that one, but is how I see it, and my biggest issue with the movie.”

    Agreeing to disagree.

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