The Punisher (1989) / Action
MPAA Rated: R for violence
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Miyori, Brian Rooney, Bryan Marshall
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin
Review published November 24, 2003
Back in the day, Marvel-licensed superhero flicks weren't so hot, and The Punisher's only real claim to success was that it was at least better than Captain America. 2004 will see the another attempt at telling the tale of Frank Castle (Lundgren, Masters of the Universe), and although I'm uncertain what the quality will be, I will bet it is much better than the first one. The oft-repeated line for this movie is "The guilty will be punished," and if there were any justice in this world, this would mean that Goldblatt (Dead Heat), Yakin (The Rookie, Fresh), and almost everyone else guilty of making this fiasco would never have been involved in films again. Sadly, Frank Castle is only a figure of comic book fiction, and the bad movies have continued.
The origin of The Punisher was changed from ex-Vietnam vet to ex-cop-turned-vigilante, avenging the deaths of his wife and children, committing at least 125 successful hits over a five year period of New York's most notorious criminals. His real name is Frank Castle, thought to be dead, but living in the underground of the city with only one thing on his mind: punishing the guilty. With so many murders already, a void has been created in organized crime, and now one man, Gianni Franco (Krabbe, The Living Daylights), has a plan to take control of what crime families are left. However, other crime factions from the other side of the world have also come in to take a slice of the crime pie in the form of the Japanese yakuza. Castle is willing to let them kill each other in a mob war, until the yakuza get the notion to kidnap the children of the mafia families, and one thing Frank won't stand for is the slaughter of innocent children.
The problems with The Punisher are multitudinous, so much that I won't even bother going into but a few of the more significant ones. The first major mistake is that Frank Castle doesn't wear his trademark "skull shirt." This might seem like a trivial issue, but imagine a film featuring Superman without an "S" on his chest or Batman without the Bat symbol, and you'll see the significance. This is a film which ignores the fan base by tweaking almost every aspect of what made The Punisher such a popular comic book character, and without the trademark garb and origin, this film is nothing but a run-of-the-mill vigilante cop flick, indistinguishable from hundreds just like it that have appeared before.
The second major mistake is that it's an Australian movie, although the setting is supposed to be the United States. However, it's clear to almost anyone that this is not New York City, from the landscapes to the buildings to the cop cars to such things as the "Wonky Walk" at the amusement park. It looks completely inauthentic, with even the Italian mobsters behaving like complete caricatures dropped in from the cast of Dick Tracy than reality.
The third, and probably most substantial element is that the low budget shows in every frame. Poor lighting, bad costumes, and shoddy sets fill up much of the screen, and the result is making an already cheesy film seem very tacky to boot. Dolph Lundgren is certainly an imposing man, but poor make-up and a ridiculous delivery leaves him looking like a tall version of Stallone's Cobra. Sadly, Louis Gossett Jr. (The Choirboys, Jaws 3), while delivering the only credible performance of the film, is given very little to do, and the dialogue he has to recite is just downright laughable. "Let me inside, Frank! Let me in!!" This is an Academy Award winning actor here, folks.
Sadly, with almost all recognizable traces of the Marvel comic stripped away, and some incredibly standard action B-movie motivations thrown in, this is a film that is equally scoffed at by Punisher fans and those unfamiliar. With goofy villains, a terrible script, and every other scene ending with an unbelievably gargantuan explosion, this is a film for bad action movie junkies only.
We know you punish the guilty, Frank. But why us?? WHY US?!?
©2003 Vince Leo