Greetings, citizens, and welcome to Fanboy Action Theater, our semi-regular look at superheroes in the movies. In this installment, we’ll review The Punisher, the action-filled movie based on the long-running Marvel comic about everyone’s favorite psychotic vigilante. However, we’ll be looking at the Dolph Lundgren movie released in 1989 and not the more recent one. As usual, there will be spoilers below. With that said, away we go!
The plot is rather straightforward. Five years in the past, Frank Castle’s family was murdered by the mob. Everybody believed that Frank Castle (played by Dolph Lundgren) died, but no! He lived and began a one-man war against organized crime from his sewer lair. His only friend in this conflict is an alcoholic old man named Shake (Barry Otto), while an old police buddy of his, Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gosset, Jr.), believes him to be alive and is trying to find him to save him.
The movie starts out with a group of mobsters getting off in a trial and returning to their mansion where they are then promptly, and messily, killed by the Punisher. Afterwards, we meet the head of the mob, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe), who not only is trying to find the Punisher and kill him, but must also deal with the Japanese Yakuza muscling in on their territory. The Yakuza are led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). The Yakuza decide to force the mob to surrender to them by kidnapping the mobster’s children. If the mobsters won’t give in, the Yakuza will kill the children. Shake goes to the Punisher and pleads with him to save the kids. While the Punisher is reluctant, he realizes that while the mobsters are guilty, the children are innocent. The Punisher then hops on his motorcycle and zooms away. He ambushes the bus carrying the children and frees them, except for the son of Gianni Franco. The Punisher is then captured by the police.
Franco, in an effort to save his son, makes a deal with the Punisher and frees him from jail. Together, they both go to the Yakuza’s main headquarters and a huge battle ensues. The Punisher and Franco kill their way through the Yakuza and eventually reach Lady Tanaka, who is holding the boy hostage. However, she is no match for the Punisher and she is dispatched. Franco then betrays the Punisher and attempts to kill him. The Punisher survives the attempt and kills Franco in front of his son. Franco’s son picks up his father’s pistol and aims it at the Punisher. The Punisher kneels in front of the boy and tells him, “Do it. Pull the trigger.” Naturally, the boy can’t and the Punisher takes the gun away. He then tells the boy, “You’re a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. If you don’t, then I’ll be waiting.” Then the Punisher stalks off into the night.
This movie is campy bad, and I love it! I actually prefer this version to the 2004 one starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta. While the plot is forgettable and liberties are taken with the Punisher character, the core of Frank Castle in the comic is kept true in this movie. While the comic Punisher didn’t sit butt-naked in the sewer constantly asking, “Where is justice? Where is punishment?”, the nature of the comic-book character is essentially the same in the movie. The Punisher is a psychotic vigilante, pure and simple. He has no people skills and no desire to do anything but kill bad guys. He doesn’t want to make friends or do some soul-searching. He only wants to PUNISH.
The cast is capable and Dolph Lundgren actually does a good job as the Punisher. (Did you know that Dolph Lundgren has a master’s degree in chemical engineering? Who knew?) The other actors play their parts as well as can be expected. This ain’t Shakespeare, folks. The main draw of the film is the action and there’s tons of it. According to IMDB.com, there are 91 fatalities in the movie (and that’s not including mass deaths due to explosions or such). Plus, the Punisher kills mobsters and Japanese gangsters! What’s not to love?
There are differences from the comic book. In the comic, the Punisher’s family is killed during a mob hit on an informant. In the movie, they’re killed by a car bomb meant for Frank Castle. Also, the Punisher does not wear his trademark skull in the movie. They even make light of this in one scene. I wish that they did have him wear the skull, but I can live without it. Also, the comic Punisher is an ex-Marine and not a cop. The character of Shake doesn’t appear in the comics (as far as I know).
There are two scenes that stand out in the movie. The first is when Franco and the Punisher have entered the Yakuza’s headquarters and are in an elevator loading up their automatic weapons. At the same time, most of the Yakuza’s muscle are practicing martial arts in the main room, which happens to be the room that the elevator opens up into. Ding! The doors open, 20-40 Yakuza guys look toward the elevator, and then the Punisher and Franco mow them all down without mercy! I love that scene! First, it’s brutal. Second, while I love kung-fu movies as much as the next guy, I always hated those movies where the one martial artist beats up a gang of heavily armed opponents. Sorry to say, folks, but as Ash says, “Good, bad….I’m the guy with the gun!” It’s hard to do a roundhouse kick with a .44 slug in your belly. The second noteworthy scene is the end where the Punisher tells the kid to grow up to be a good man or else he’ll have to answer to the Punisher. The Punisher just blew away the kid’s dad and now he threatens the kid that the same will happen to him if he follows his dad’s path. Classic!
All in all, The Punisher isn’t a timeless classic of American cinema, but it is a heck of a lot of fun to watch. For campy, violent fun, I give The Punisher an…………………………A-.