Don Pendleton’s pulp action book series “The Executioner,” told the story of a Vietnam veteran and his wars against organized crime after his family was brutally killed by the Mafia, sound familiar? Yeah, it was this book series that Marvel comic book writer Gerry Conway took for inspiration when he created one of the most popular anti-heroes in fiction, one that should easily translate to the big screen as action revenge pictures had been a Hollywood staple for years, so this live-action adaption was bound to be a sure-fire hit, right?
As was the case with Don Pendleton’s “The Executioner” the character of Frank Castle was a U.S. Marine who after seeing his wife and children gunned down, after accidentally witnessing a Mafia hit, became the vigilante known as “The Punisher” and with his signature Death’s Head Skull adorning his chest he began his one-man war against organized crime. That is the origin of the Punisher as found in Marvel Comics, which bears very little resemblance to the character found in this New World Pictures movie of the same name, not only is his origin story changed but for some bizarre reason director Mark Goldblatt decided to forgo Frank Castle’s distinctive costume, seriously, what was he thinking? This version of the Punisher has no giant skull emblazoned on his chest, instead, he uses a knife with a little skull at the end of the hilt, and while I can understand an action director from the 90s not wanting his hero dressed in spandex but by removing that trademark emblem he’s simply not the Punisher anymore.
In this film, there is no tragic mishap that finds a family wiped out by the Mafia, here we have Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) as an undercover police detective who loses his wife and kids when a car bomb meant for him takes them out instead, and sure, this does result in Castle becoming a vigilante and waging a secret war against organized crime but his character is so off model you have to close one eye and squint to even start to compare the two, and I’m not even talking about his lack of costume because even if he was sporting the iconic Punisher skull and ammo belt he’d still be a far cry from the relentless killer from the pages of Marvel Comics. That’s not to say this Frank Castle doesn’t provide a fairly good body count, we are told that he’s killed one hundred twenty-five people as The Punisher, and during the film’s running time he kills sixty more and that’s not including those who die en masse in explosions, but he also has a softer side.
The movie does get off to a nice start with mob boss Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall) being acquitted for the crime of murdering Frank Castle’s family only to return home to find The Punisher waiting for him and his crew, where he quickly takes out all the goons one by one until finally planting his trademark knife in Moretti’s back and then blowing up the mansion, yet for some strange reason, this is followed by a strange tour of the sewers where we hear the voice of Castle questioning the All-Mighty, “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?” Is it just me or does that sound more like the ravings of the serial killer Son of Sam than it does a comic book vigilante? And one further question, “Why is he hanging around naked in the sewers?”
The death of Dino Moretti forces former kingpin Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) out of retirement but his attempt at marshalling the remaining underworld families into one strong unified force comes to the attention of Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), the current leader of the Yakuza, and she decides to take over the weakened Mafia families and all of their interests. After crashing a boardroom meeting she is quick to point out to the Mafia dons that “We are Yakuza. When your ancestors were shepherds still screwing sheep on the Mediterranean coast, ours were the crime lords of Asia” but how does she hope to achieve this without causing a major crime war? It’s simple really, she kidnaps their children and holds them for ransom. One must admit that for an action film the premise of the Punisher caught in a war between the Mafia and the Yakuza is pretty solid, unfortunately, what we get isn’t really the Punisher and the action is of the low-rent variety found in many cheap action films of the 80s with the hero standing in the open, firing away at his enemies, while all the bad guys can’t hit the broadside of a Dolph Lundgren. Then there is the subplot concerning Castle’s old partner Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) and his new partner Detective Samantha “Sam” Leary (Nancy Everhard), who is trying to prove to the world that Frank Castle is still alive. Which really shouldn’t be too hard as he doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.
Question: How can the police keep pushing the story that Frank Castle is dead when he practically poses for the Press after a kill?
- Castle is assumed to have died in the car bomb that killed his wife and two daughters but wouldn’t the lack of his burnt remains at the scene of the crime cast doubt on that assumption? Does forensics not exist in this world?
- Nancy Everhard, who plays Detective Samantha Leary, also starred in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk which came out the very same year as this film.
- Frank Castle uses a bottle of whiskey on a remote-controlled toy truck to lure his snitch into a meeting, clearly, the Punisher is a dick to alcoholics.
- Lady Tanaka lures Frank Castle into an ambush at an old and abandoned funhouse, but why that location? Is she the leader of the Yakuza or working for the Joker?
- Frank Castle disables the elevators in the Yakuza high rise, forcing Berkowitz and the SWAT team to wait until they are fixed, and I must ask “Does this building not have stairs or do the police in this town just have terrible cardio?”
- When Leary brings Berkowitz over to her computer, he asks her “What you think you’re gonna do with that? Play Ms. Pac-Man or something?” as if computers weren’t a tool the police have been using for decades, this does not instill faith in our hero cop.
A movie pitting the Punisher against ninjas should have resulted in a very entertaining flick but New World Pictures didn’t quite have a handle on the action genre at this time, they should have taken a page out of Cannon Films whose Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action films as they made a killing with those, and it’s not because those films were especially good they were just a lot of fun, and speaking of fun when it comes to ninjas you don’t get much better than Cannon’s Ninja III: The Domination and that’s where The Punisher really fails, it’s simply not all that enjoyable. Dolph Lundgren’s brooding Frank Castle is not all that interesting, the action sequences were rather poorly choreographed and even something like him machine gun-wielding ninjas on funhouse slides was orchestrated without any sense of fun or energy. How do you mess up something like that?
With tired and often silly action sequences filling up much of the screen time it’s up to the script to hold the film together but as the writer of this film never met an action cliché he didn’t like what we are left with is a collection completely unnecessary characters and a plot that constantly contradicts itself, for example, Castle is broken out of police custody by Gianni Franco so that he can be sent off to save Franco’s son Tommy (Brian Rooney), who the Yakuza had also grabbed, but when Castle refuses to help Franco threatens to kill his old partner Berkowitz, but why is that threat necessary? Earlier in the film Castle had promised Tommy he’d come back and save him, after rescuing all the other children from the Yakuza, so Castle telling Franco he won’t help is pointless and stupid. Then after another endless and ridiculous shootout, where we learn you shouldn’t bring a katana to a gunfight, the film concludes with Castle killing Tommy’s father right in front of him, to which he then tells the kid “You’re a good boy. Grow up to become a good man, because if not, I’ll be waiting.” It’s nice to see a movie that can be so inspirational.
At the time of this movie’s release the current owners of New World Pictures weren’t interested in theatrical films so The Punisher never saw a North American release, it did premiere in Germany and France but it was banned in Sweden and South Africa, and with limited box office receipts and poor reviews any thought of a sequel was quickly abandoned, so in conclusion, if watching Dolph Lundgren tool around the sewers on a motorbike, in between his naked monologuing, sounds appealing then this could be the film for you but it’s certainly not a film that most fans of the comic book could ever embrace.
The Punisher (1989)
Movie Rank - 5/10
This version of The Punisher is simply another example of filmmakers paying for the property rights to a popular comic book character and then abandoning most of what made that character popular in the first place, and Dolph Lundgren’s monosyllabic Frank Castle is about as exciting as watching paint dry, making this entry a clear case of “What the fuck were they thinking?”