Title: The Punisher
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Writers: 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
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr, Joroen Krabbé, Barry Otto, Kim Miyori, Nancy Everhard
Release Date: October 5, 1989 (International); April 25, 1991 (US)
MPAA: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.