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The Punisher (1989)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE PUNISHER (1989)

Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Miyori, Nancy Everhard, Barry Otto

Written By: Boaz Yakin Directed By: Mark Goldblatt

The Short Version

Dolph Lundgren takes a shot at a comic book hero flick.

Unfortunately, it’s a comic book hero flick with no budget for its ambitions.

The Punisher feels flatter than a Coke that’s been left open for a week.

But don’t blame Dolph; if anything, he plays the title role too well.

The Punisher isn’t as bad as its rep, but it’s easy to see how that rep was acquired.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SLIGHTLY UNDERCOOKED CHEESY POTATO SKINS.

They’re not bad, per se.  They’re edible.  But you’re not going to be first in line to go back to this restaurant again, either.


Pairs Well With...

HOUSE VODKA.

Some call it a rail drink.  Others call it punishment.

“What the hell’s a thespian?”

“An actor, sir.”


When asked to reflect upon that category of cinema collectively known as “Teatro Dolph Lundgren,” a significant number of fans will automatically call out The Punisher as the worst of the lot without even thinking.  It doesn’t matter if they can barely remember having seen the flick once while drunk two decades ago, or sometimes even if they’ve actually seen the movie at all; it’s just one of those “facts” that’s oozed into the collective Dolph fan consciousness and stuck like a bad Wikipedia article.

To me, this doesn’t seem fair, especially after having watched the allegedly “so much better” 2004 version earlier this year and finding it to be much more of a disappointment than its own rep would have suggested.  And so, having been eleven or twelve years removed from my own last look at Dolph’s Punisher (and with the help of my old friend and former partner in crime, Kenner), I figured it was time to give the much-maligned flick from 1989 a fresh look with an open mind.

On the one hand, it’s better than I had remembered it to be, and much better than its horrendous reputation.  It is also definitely not Dolph’s worst-ever film.

On the other hand… well…

Our story takes place five years into the reign of revenge against organized crime wrought by the vigilante known as The Punisher (Dolph Lundgren, Bridge of Dragons)… which coincidentally began shortly after police officer Frank Castle and his family were murdered by gangsters.  By the time the audience joins the program, The Punisher has killed at least 125 criminals, shredding the local underworld to a point of near collapse.  Boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe, The Fugitive) feels compelled to return from a five year hiatus in Europe to try and salvage his empire, but he soon discovers that his worst enemy might not be The Punisher at all.  Suddenly… ninjas!  Okay, they’re the Yakuza, but the movie makes them act like ninjas.  Could it be that the vigilante responsible for so many mob deaths might have to join forces with the very man who murdered his family in order to save the city from this new threat from across the ocean?

Hmm… signs point to “yes”…

On paper, the potential is there for The Punisher to be something interesting; maybe even special.  However, 1989 wasn’t exactly a hot time at the bijou for any comic book heroes not named “Batman,” and the studio behind this particular project was having financial troubles.  This meant that the crew had less than $10 million to play with, which in turn meant that some corners would be cut, some questionable decisions would be made, and many ambitions simply would not be realized.  Tack on the eventual bankruptcy of the aforementioned studio killing a US theatrical release, and, well… It doesn’t exactly sound like a gourmet recipe for success, does it?

Given that kind of background, I’m actually surprised that The Punisher turned out as well as it did.

One thing that I really like about the approach taken here (and a thing that was a significant point of contention behind the scenes) is that the script does not take the common route of making The Punisher an origin story.  Sure, the bare details are given through very quick flashbacks and alluded to in dialogue, but entire acts of the film aren’t chewed up by them.  Instead, what the audience gets is a simple action/revenge flick that turns on a single question of ethics and implied offer of redemption.  This is immediately a plus for action fans (forget the boring stuff about how the hero “finds himself;” let’s use that time to bring the body count past 90 instead!), and a point of possibility for plot enthusiasts.  Unfortunately for the latter camp, however, that possibility is never realized, for with the exception of exactly two scenes – one of which I would have strongly considered editing down – there is no such thing as character development in this flick, and even those brief sparks yield nothing for the characters in question when all is said and done.  Everyone who doesn’t end up in a body bag ends up exactly where he or she started.  It’s not entirely without point – the film does answer the question of “how far will he go?” – but if you’re here for depth of story, prepare to walk away feeling hollow.

Of course, most people look in on The Punisher for the sake of the action, and on that score, it’s a much more satisfying film… sort of.  On a visceral and visual level, The Punisher fires on all cylinders.  As real action fans know, it’s not just a matter of body count – which here tops 90 even before factoring in mass attack things like explosions – but also how one piles it up, and as a veteran editor of many an action flick (including Commando and The Terminator), director Mark Goldblatt knows how to showcase these sequences and make them look good.  When our hero takes out a mansion of goombahs at the start of the film, visually, that’s an awesome scene.  When our hero and his accomplice bust in on a room full of ninjas and blast them all down before any of them can stand, visually, that’s an awesome scene.  When our hero shoots up an underground club in anger, visually, that’s an awesome scene. 

However.

There’s a reason that Mark Goldblatt is considered a master editor, and a reason why he only directed one feature film before this one and none after.  For while the violence looks good and is cut well, there’s just no feeling there.  That “room full of ninjas” scene should be funny, but it’s not; it’s just “there,” flat.  The casino scene should rock, but no matter how pissed our hero is, there’s just no passion to the moment.  The same holds true right on down the line; nearly everything about The Punisher feels flatter than a week-old Coke.  Do I blame the director entirely?  No; he’s just part of what one might consider a cascading failure.  He lacks directorial je ne sais quois (how often do you see that phrase in a Dolph review?), the casino looked cheap as hell due to budget and therefore couldn’t blow up as nicely, the music’s kinda half assed and therefore doesn’t get the blood pumping through the power of suggestion, the comic book character’s signature skull is gone from everything but a few dagger pommels, the script is utterly devoid of the humor that was the signature of great 80s/90s action (there’s one joke)… I think you get the idea.

Meanwhile, there’s the cast, all of whom do the best they can under the circumstances, even though most of them probably shouldn’t have been there.  Lou Gossett, Jr. (Iron Eagle) brings some acting credibility to the table and serves as one half of the single best character-oriented scene in the movie (his meeting with Frank), but for the most part, his presence in this world feels forced.  Even more out of place is Jeroen Krabbe, playing yet another two-faced character, which works (Hollywood seemed to like casting him in those roles for a while), but also being sold to the audience as an American gangster, which absolutely does not.  (“Five years in Europe” is not going to cut it.)  That aside, he’s an actor suited for schemer roles, and placing him in a major action sequence and expecting him to look like anything other than an obstruction is just plain wrong.  On the other hand, our villainess, Kim Miyori (The Grudge 2) is outstanding, but unlike the square pegs surrounding her, she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.

And then there’s our hero, Dolph Lundgren, who is both the best thing about The Punisher and one of the simplest-to-point-out scapegoats for why it failed.  Dolph’s take on Frank Castle is that of a burned-out human husk who discovered a copy of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral,” set the CD player to ‘continuous loop,’ pressed ‘play,’ and never shut it off.  Ever.  [Yes, I know that “The Downward Spiral” came out five years after this movie did, but the NIN album that’s actually contemporary to The Punisher, “Pretty Hate Machine,” is too upbeat for Dolph’s Frank Castle.  So gimme some license here, willya?]  This burnout portrayal is perfect; it is exactly what I would expect a real person like Castle to be given the same circumstances.  Unfortunately, Dolph does his job too well: he plays Castle as so burned out and out of touch with the world that the character also presents very little in terms of being able to touch the audience.  The character just doesn’t give a damn about life, so why should anyone give a damn about him?  (Lundgren would go on to walk the burnout line with much greater success and just the right touch of humanity twenty-one years later in The Expendables, but here… did he have any fun?)  I get the method employed here, but I think The Punisher would have been at least a little better received had Dolph let just a wee bit of spark show up on camera.  (And for those who ridiculously complain about his “naked butt scenes” that bookend the film… don’t look down.)

With all of the above in mind, I don’t consider The Punisher to be a bad movie.  Indeed, I can’t say that I consider it to be worse than the 2004 version.  However, there is one more factor that I think tips the long term scales away from this flick’s favor with the popular audience… and I can’t say that I disagree.

It’s the kids.

The major plot of The Punisher involves a threat against a large number of young children.  This makes complete sense in terms of story, and is, for the most part, tastefully handled.  However, the modern world being what it is – especially at the time of this writing – that’s not going to matter; the fact that so many little kids are being hauled around this flick is going to be enough to earn an unwashable black mark for a large portion of the potential audience.  (I also suspect that this is the real reason why the film was banned in a few countries even in 1989, for the violence, frankly, is no worse than Rambo.)  For almost the entire movie, I’m willing to go along with it (the kids are not actually harmed with anything worse than a slap), but the last major scene does cross a squick line with me, not because of physical violence done to a child, but rather, what the child’s character is encouraged to do.  I’m not going to say any more for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but I will say that I’d have recut the scene so that the kid never actually does something and isn’t encouraged to in so direct a manner, either.  A certain impact might have been lost that way, but I think the trade would have been worth it.

Bottom line, The Punisher isn’t as bad as its reputation would suggest it to be, but it’s not exactly a Golden Age action classic, either.  The action is there, but the passion and the humor (and the budget) are not, and the result is flat stuff that goes in one eyeball and out the other.  For Dolph fans and fans of the era, it works for a cheap movie night, but for casual audiences, it’s a flick whose time has passed and perhaps never quite was.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2012


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