Paragon Pundit Hero Movie Review
|#23: The Punisher (1989 film)|
Between box office wins such as “Spider-Man”, “X-Men”, “Fantastic Four”, and “Iron Man”, it’s hard to imagine that the Might Marvel Comics could EVER do wrong. And yet the biggest example of that fail rested with five words…
“Dolph Lundgren is THE PUNISHER!”
Okay, I’m sure you’re scratching your head over this and wondering what the heck the Pundit is talking about, right?
Well, the film that you probably know as “The Punisher”, be it the 2004 incarnation featuring Thomas Jane or the 2008 “War Zone” movie featuring Ray Stevenson (both films on the “To Review” list), is actually the second and third attempt at telling the story of the gritty skull-bearing Marvel vigilante.
The first incarnation, however, was abysmal, and you can understand why people would not want to remember that it was even made.
This “Punisher” was released in 1989 by New World Pictures, and it starred Dolph Lundgren, Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., Kim Miyori, Jeroen Krabbe, Nancy Everhard, and Barry Otto. It was directed by Mark Goldblatt. It was never released in US theaters, appearing only in West Germany in 1989 and then released on VHS in 1991. The reasons behind the non-release were less on the film quality and more to do with New World Pictures suffering from financial problems.
This was back in the day when Dolph was the hottest actor in the market, or at least the hungriest, and he was signing his name onto as many roles as he could play after “Rocky IV” came out. He had teamed up with Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee) for one movie, became “He-Man” in the “Masters of the Universe”, and served as the foil for Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Universal Soldier”. Basically if you had film that featured a side of beef, that side of beef would answer to the name of Dolph Lundgren. But I digress…
The film starts with a gritty title sequence featuring sill images travelling through a dark service tunnel and Dolph shooting them with his M-60. Then we see a news report of a mob leader being acquitted from the murder of Frank Castle and family. Strangely, the picture of Frank looks nothing like Dolph. Then we see a cocky mob leader boasting his innocence and promising that “The Punisher” would not get near him. As the mob boss drives away, we see a leather-bound boot with a skull-head dagger strapped to it. The boot starts up a motorcycle and follows the limo. “The Boot” follows the mob boss home and proceeds to pick off the players one by one in serial-killer fashion. As the nearby media react to the sounds of gunshots, the house explodes, and we see the shadowy figure of “The Punisher” (Lundgren) hiding in the flames before the rest of the explosions destroy the whole house.
We then hear Punisher begging God to know why he survived when his family didn’t as we see views of that same service tunnel before finishing with a shot of Punisher’s naked backside, then a flashback of the death of his wife and kids.
The scene shifts back to the remains of the destroyed mansion as Lt. Jake Berkowitz (Gossett) shoos away a nagging reporter, and then is told from his superiors that “Frank Castle is dead” and to back off. Berkowitz refuses to back off, though. He is joined by Detective Sam Leary (Everhard), who is told in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want a partner but changes his mind when she says that she also believes that Frank Castle is not dead.
The media then chase around Gianni Franco (Krabbe), who was the last of the mob bosses and had returned to the United States only to be welcomed by Berkowitz, saying he needed “more bait” to catch the Punisher. Joined by his son, Gianni is quick to take over the mob operation. A ragged drunk (Otto) and bad actor called “Shakes” asks a patron for some financial help before being thrown out of the bar and lured by a moving bottle of booze to divulge what he knows of a drug shipment to the Punisher.
At the nearby drug import, the mob operatives are silently picked off by a gang of ninjas before the Punisher could arrive. He fights off both gang members, but not before being knocked off the pier by a knife-throwing girl. Later Berkowitz sees the Punisher knife in one of the drivers.
Franco briefs his men on the woman behind the attack. It turns out they all work for Lady Tanaka (Miyori) of the Yakuza, and the mute knife-throwing girl is her protégée. Tanaka then arrives at the meeting and tells Franco that they are taking over the family’s operation, which Franco vows will not happen. We also discover that the entire conversation being overheard by Punisher.
At the police office, Leary shows Berkowitz how her computer would predict Punisher’s next location. She says that the Punisher is actually living under the city.
As the Punisher rides about underground, the children of the mob bosses are being kidnapped by the Yakuza. Shake begs Punisher to step in - in bad rhyming form no less - but Punisher seemingly brushes it all off, convinced that the mob bosses consider him “dead” and that he is no longer a threat.
At the Yakuza headquarters, Lady Tanaka plans on selling the kids to the slave market. The kids all know that something is wrong, but Gianni’s son refuses to believe that his father is a bad guy, much less the leader of the whole mafia. (Hey kid, you’re in good company on that part!) When Tanaka tells the kids that they will soon be “taken home”, little Tommy fights back and is taken away.
At a (poorly constructed) Yakuza nightclub (and amateur circus?), the Punisher attacks, tearing up the bar and threatening to continue destroying their businesses for every day that the children are missing. Berokowitz and Leary realize that Punisher is behind this attack. They also find out that the mob children are missing, which Leary says would be something Punisher would do, but Berkowitz says that Punisher couldn’t have kidnapped children and shows her a picture of Castle’s two children as proof.
Shakes shows Punisher that the kids are being held at an abandoned amusement park. He discovers, though, that the Yakuza are waiting for him. They overpower him and Tanaka’s protégé knocks him out. Punisher then is tortured by Tanaka, but that gets nowhere. She then orders that Shakes be tortured, but Punisher doesn’t care either. She leaves frustrated, with him grunting “Have a nice day”, and he then quickly works his way out of his restraints to escape along with his drunken stooge.
Leary and Berkowitz start looking in the sewer tunnels for Punisher’s lair and he tells her how he met Frank Castle and got his life straightened out. Meanwhile, the mob underlings (minus Franco) meet with Tanaka, only to discover that they were poisoned before she arrived and are quickly killed.
The Punisher steals a city bus to rescue the kids, which he does for everyone except for Tommy. This leads to a little bus chase until they run into a police roadblock. (HOW this could be set up at such short notice is anyone’s guess since the police still think that Frank Castle is dead.) Punisher surrenders to the police and lets the kids go. Berkowitz confronts Punisher in jail, but Punisher continues to say that Frank is dead and the guilty are dead and that 125 murders is “a work in progress”.
Franco breaks the Punisher out while being transported to his court arraignment and offers his help to rescue Tommy in exchange for Berkowitz, whom he had also kidnapped. Berkowitz eventually manages to free himself as Punisher and Franco make their way up the various levels of Yakuza soldiers like a poorly-done video game. Punisher takes on the protégée while Tanaka humiliates Franco in front of his son before being killed by the Punisher. With Tommy safe, Franco then tries to kill the Punisher, but is stopped by his son. This gives Punisher the chance to kill Franco in the ensuing struggle. Tommy wants to kill Punisher, but he doesn’t have the heart to do it. Punisher warns Tommy to not follow in his father’s path or else “he’ll be waiting”. Punisher vanishes as Berkowitz shows up, and we end with the Punisher’s monologue about “The guilty will be punished” and showing his naked backside yet again before going to credits.
There. I just saved you a dollar in the bargain basement bin.
I find it hard to even call this a “Punisher” movie. Lundgren’s character may be named Frank Castle, but there was nothing about him that WAS “Punisher”. He didn’t wear the skull-head shirt, and he looked and acted more like a zombie Terminator than as a war veteran. This probably should have been called “Cops and Mobsters” as this was more of a cop movie than it was a movie based on a Marvel Comics character.
Gossett’s character was probably the only thing that really carried the whole movie. It certainly wasn’t “Castle” or “Punisher” or “Mister P” (as “Shakes” referred to him as). And the gratuitous butt shots should have been eliminated, especially since the butt shots were all from the Punisher and followed nihilistic messages. Here’s a word to the wise: nihilism and gratuitous nudity do not mix! The other characters were either forgettable, or, in the case of the rhyming “Shakes”, characters you WANT to forget.
In all, folks, if you see this movie at your local discount video store, save your pocket change unless you’re a serious Louis Gossett Jr. fan. Thankfully Marvel does a whole lot better with this character the next time around.
Zero capes out of five. This wasn’t a Marvel Comics story. This was a renegade cop flick using the name “Frank Castle”.
|Cheese:||Between the stereotypical characterization of the villains, the amusement park ninja fight, and the cheesy comeback lines, this ended up with some Mild Cheddar (2).|
Three books out of five, running on par with some of the other “renegade cop” films of the time.