The Punisher (1989)

“The guilty will be punished.”

Heather’s rating: 8/10 motorcycle-width sewer pipes.

Heather’s review: In what I believe may be the quickest turnaround from page to screen for a comic character, The Punisher showcases Frank Castle a mere 15 years after the character’s first appearance in 1974. It’s not as meticulously faithful to the source material as we’ve become accustomed to these days, but hot dang if it doesn’t do a good job of showing us the man who lost his mind and most of his soul to vengeance.

When I answered Justin’s call to join him in a review of this 1989 film, I was extremely skeptical, having been burned by other early superhero films, but once I queued this baby up I was drawn in. The mood is set perfectly by the score’s eerie title score, which creeps up as the camera winds through the sewers that Castle calls home and suddenly into darkness broken only by stills of those whose lives he seeks as payment for the destruction of his family. The visuals then turn into a dizzying set of circles with background images that mimic traveling through a tunnel of violence and seedy activity.

It’s a gaudy kind of grim that let me know exactly what I was in for with this film. You’re gonna get explosions, the mob vs the Yakuza, innocents caught in the crossfire, and just, like, all of the blood and bullets.

There are humorous moments sprinkled in (admittedly, some being from the Looney Tunes-esque kills), with the dialogue being unexpectedly well-written and devoid of one-liners. One of the more surprising aspects of the film was the representation: For a 1989 superhero/action movie I did not expect to have several female and black characters with lead roles of power. There’s nary a line of dialogue to bring it up, aside from one of the mobsters listing their foe as the Yakuza’s first female leader as one of her impressive accomplishments.

My biggest complaint was the comic relief character: a strange, sometimes-rhyming alcoholic thespian who had some funny lines, but ultimately seemed out of place. I’ll let it slide for that hilarious scene of Castle luring him over to the alleyway with a RC semi truck loaded with a bottle of booze.

Aside from a hideously dated song in one underground club scene and the Yakuza seeming to have hired the illustrator for Duran Duran’s Rio album cover as their interior decorator, this movie has aged VERY well and is absolutely worth checking out.

Justin’s rating: A jammed clip in a hot gun

Justin’s review: Decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a thing and the Punisher saw a string of appearances on TV and in big-budget films, Frank Castle came to life under the guise of Dolph “I must break you” Lundgren in 1989. It’s always very strange to go back and watch these earlier Marvel comic movie efforts, such as David Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury or Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, especially in light of how the MCU has become so popular today.

I was fully expecting this movie to be all sorts of lame, but if you’re not convinced that this is an Oscar-worthy effort by the seventh minute, there is no hope for you. Right out of the gate, Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, goes on a Die Hard-style rampage against a crime family that was responsible for killing his family. He’s not just content to knife, shoot, and hang the mobsters, he also blows up their house. Twice. And then casually walks away in the smoke while the news cameras roll on.

So unlike many superhero films, The Punisher doesn’t start with an origin story, but rather throws us right into the middle of the titular character’s vigilante run — 125 bad guys murdered and counting — and fills us in on the guy’s rather scant backstory. In short, you don’t want to tick off a special forces vet who doesn’t have anything left to lose.

The Punisher always operated in the seedy back alleys rather than among the sterling skyscrapers, so you’re in for a whole lot of revengin’ against the mob. But when the Yakuza steps in to bring all of the organized crime families under its thumb by kidnapping the mafia’s kids (yeah, all of them), Frank Castle teams up with his old rival to bring it all down.

As a very early Marvel effort, this movie doesn’t exactly stick to the details of the comic as closely as some might like. I think it’s a particular shame that, for whatever reason, they didn’t give Dolph the iconic Punisher skull shirt. And the script writers pen dialogue as if they discovered what swearing was yesterday and wanted to use as much of it as they can just in case it was going to get banned in a week.

But at least they had a lot of fun making a high-octane crazy action film with no violence filters. Lundgren was a good choice to play a guy who mostly just glowers and mutters out terse one-liners. He also rides a motorcycle through a sewer as a matter of course, which is probably why he signed on to do this. When a film studio offers you a subterranian hog cruise, you sign and thank your lucky stars.

The Punisher was never my favorite Marvel character; he’s kind of like Batman with a lower moral center and a more restrictive budget, and it’s really hard to root for someone who murders as a day job — even if he’s tacitly on the side of “good.” Likewise, this movie didn’t really get me rooting for Frank Castle because there’s not much to him. He’s a discount Rambo, a twice-used Terminator, and the unfunny ex-partner of Riggs and Murtaugh.

Yet while I don’t care about the character — and this movie doesn’t do much to change my mind — The Punisher is a glorious reminder of the over-the-top insanity that was 1980s action films. You get your money (or time’s) worth of fight scenes, including one hilarious showdown in an indoor amusement park where Yakuza arrive coasting down slides on their knees and Frank is riding his motorcycle inside while blasting away.

The Punisher never got much of a fair chance in theaters, which is regrettable considering that it was released the same year that Batman made comic book films en vogue. Potty mouth and random racial epithets aside, it’s an enjoyable action romp in the vein of Commando. And I’m glad to give Dolph a bit of my time, considering how much he contributed to the decade.


Groovy Quotes:

“Frank Castle is dead. No more talk about him being otherwise.”

Shake to Castle: “You know, with your flair for entrances you should consider a career in theatre.”

Castle: “I punish the guilty.”
Shake: “And as a result, the innocent now suffer!”

Berkowitz: “You’re sick. You know that, don’t you?
Castle: “No, I’m not.”
Berkowitz: “Then what the f— do you call one hundred twenty-five murders in five years?”

Castle: “A work in progress”

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