Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Mark Goldblatt
Written by: Boaz Yakin
(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Miyori, Bryan Marshall & Nancy Everhard
Before Marvel was the superhero cinematic giant that it is today, it served as source material for a seemingly never-ending string of lame low-budget flops. THE PUNISHER was primed to be a potential box office hit of Summer 1989 with posters, magazine articles, and trailers hyping the film’s release. Difficulties with the studio resulted in it receiving a theatrical release practically everywhere but in the USA, where it was dumped direct-to-video two years later. As the first in three famous attempts to bring Frank Castle to life on the big screen, 1989’s PUNISHER is a cheeseball guilty pleasure. This is far from good, but can definitely be entertaining with some beers and a group of B-movie-loving friends in tow.
Meet Frank Castle. He was believed to have perished with his family in a fiery mob hit. Frank didn’t die though. Instead, he was reborn as the crime-fighting Punisher. Employing the use of many deadly weapons, an endless supply of bullets, and brutal hand-to-hand skills, The Punisher has taken to wiping out mafia figures (125 murders in five years to be precise) in an effort eradicate the guilty…and to quench his thirst for criminal blood at the same time. Frank faces his toughest obstacle yet when the newly arrived Yakuza kidnaps children from notable crime families in the city. The Punisher finds himself on a deadly, bullet-filled quest to rescue the captive kids and take out the Japanese mafia at the same time.
The first thing that should be addressed is the elephant in the room: Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher. Lundgren is a Swedish action star who’s three inches taller than Schwarzenegger with half the acting prowess. As you might assume from that description, Lundgren is not a very talented performer. Dolph seems to be half sleepwalking through his title vigilante/anti-hero role. The character of Frank Castle/Punisher is meant to be a tragic figure turned bloodthirsty avenging angel. In an effort to portray his brooding nature, Lundgren seems to be intentionally be keeping his eyes half drooped through the entire running time. The worst bits come in the scenes where he’s not breaking someone’s neck or putting a hundred bullets into a random thug as there are half-assed monologues about the Punisher talking to God. To be completely fair, these are poorly written from the get-go, but Lundgren’s monotone delivery of them certainly doesn’t help anything either.
The side characters are infinitely more interesting than Dolph’s dull as dirt protagonist. Louis Gossett, Jr. plays Frank’s former partner with a fun, clichéd 80’s cop persona. Gossett’s storyline of trying to hunt down the Punisher somewhat balances out Lundgren’s lame attempts at being sullen. For no apparent reason whatsoever, a washed-up thespian is a would-be sidekick to the Punisher. This drunken comic relief is played by Barry Otto and sprinkles random rhymes into his eccentric line delivery (“Can’t you see that this is a result of your killing spree?”). He’s quite unbelievable and annoying, but seems to fit the cartoonish over-the-top vibe of the film as a whole. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kim Miyori delivers as the sinister Lady Tanaka. She turns this Yakuza boss into an intimidating villainess worthy of the comic book Punisher (if only he were here).
While 1989’s PUNISHER lacks in plot and performances, it delivers in gratuitous violence. This film has a large body count that damn near reaches COMMANDO levels. Whole rooms of gangsters are wiped out without a moment’s hesitation. Within the first 10 minutes, we see Frank Castle slay an entire house full of mobsters and then blow it up. The action never really lags from there. Though we get occasional moments of the cop following Frank’s trail as well as the gangland conflicts between the old-fashioned mafia and violent Yakuza, it seems like there’s an action scene every five minutes or so. This 1989 Punisher doesn’t only care about knocking off gangsters as this film also contains a laugh-out-loud sequence in which Frank Castle demolishes a casino without prejudice. We are treated to a three-minute long scene of Frank plowing through slot machines, a bar filled with liquor battles, and a poor pool table that gets caught in the crossfire. I found this to be absolutely hilarious.
At the end of the day, 1989’s PUNISHER can be enjoyed as a ridiculous, over-the-top guilty pleasure. There’s nothing genuinely good about this film, but it remains enjoyable in its goofball 80’s action clichés. I think we should all be grateful that Dolph Lundgren never played another big Marvel character again, though David Hasselhoff tried his hand out as Nick Fury. THE PUNISHER is a good time for those who want to turn their brain off and enjoy an entertainingly bad 80’s action flick. You’re bound to have some fun if you watch this with an added combination of beer and pizza.