Revisiting the Reviled – The Punisher Suffers From Lack of Puns

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It seems as if we’re living in the golden age of the comic book film. Many of the better comic book films have found the proper balance between comic fantasy and gravitas. But none of these films would be possible if not for the advancement of computer technology. The Punisher, however, is a character that requires no computer effects. Guns, blanks, squibs, fake blood, and explosions are all you really need, and those were in great supply during the ‘80s. Yet even with those simple ingredients the 1989 version of The Punisher couldn’t distinguish itself from countless other Death Wish rip-offs of its era.

I remember seeing the VHS of The Punisher at my local video store and wondering to myself, “When did this come out in theaters?” It turns out it never did. Produced by New World Pictures, founded by Roger Corman who had already sold his stake in the company, a majority of The Punisher was shot in Australia with pickup shots done in Los Angeles. Though the film received worldwide distribution, New World had fallen in to financial despair, and, much like 1990’s Captain America, The Punisher went straight-to-video in the US.

By no means is The Punisher as bad as its cousin, Captain America, but it’s still not very good. It’s interesting because the people who worked on the film have worked on other successful films, only not in the roles they occupy on The Punisher. Director Mark Goldblatt had only one prior directing credit, the Joe Piscopo zombie film Dead Heat, but a good resume a film editor having worked on The Terminator, Commando, and more. After The Punisher, Goldblatt returned to editing, including the last entry in this column, X-Men: The Last Stand. Producer Robert Mark Kamen has yet to produce another film, but has taken to becoming a frequent screenwriting collaborator of Luc Besson.

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“I can quit anytime, man.”

The film’s story is rather straightforward. After his family is murdered by a vengeful mob boss, Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren), assumed dead, takes justice in his own bloody hands, offing those he deems guilty with extreme prejudice. Castle’s former partner on the police force, Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr. playing, apparently, a black Jewish detective), teams with a young hot shot detective, Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard), to bring the Punisher to justice. Following the death of mob boss, Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall), his successor, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), takes the reigns of his crime syndicate. All is not well for Franco’s mafia, he has to deal with the Punisher whacking his men and he is confronted with a hostile merger by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her yakuza goons. The gang conflict reaches a tipping point when Lady Tanaka kidnaps the children of her competition. In order to prevent a long and bloody gang war, the Punisher must intervene, save the children, and destroy the bad guys.

At the very least, The Punisher avoids the traps of an origin story. They did, however, shoot an origin story for the film which can be found on YouTube. A 15-minute segment that encapsulates Berkowitz and Castle as detectives working against the mob with the help of the rookie Leary. Their drug bust of Moretti leads to the death of Castle’s family, and thus provides a little context for the opening of the film. But this segment was cut for all the right reasons. In the finished film, Castle’s family is killed in a flashback. A quick, merciful flashback.

Produced before Tim Burton’s Batman would blend comic book camp with gothic seriousness, and after John McTiernan’s Die Hard heralded the beginning of the end of the muscle-bound action heroes of the ‘80s, The Punisher doesn’t feel like it really belongs in its time and place. It’s a film that rests between the major shifts that would transform its genre. The muscle-bound stars of ‘80s action fare were drifting away from the genre. Arnold made Twins in 1988 and would make Kindergarten Cop a few years later. Meanwhile, Stallone was working on Rocky V with Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot on the horizon. The films coming out of Hong Kong would soon change the way action was presented on screen. The Punisher is one of the last vestiges of the old guard, but only to show how necessary new blood was.

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The Punisher 2: Grey Death

Speaking of blood, that’s part of the reason the film just doesn’t work – the violence, the action, the gore. Not that they’re non-existent in The Punisher, only they’re mere glimpses of something that could’ve worked better if fully realized. The action presented on-screen shows flashes of competence only to quickly devolve into visually incomprehensible gibberish. Some action scenes are so poorly put together it’s hard to believe that two professional editors worked on it, one of them being the director. The film is never excessively violent enough to be interesting or memorable, it just looks like a lot of other cheap ‘80s action flicks.

Another the reason the film feels anachronistic is its inclusion of the yakuza storyline. Yes, many Marvel Comics storylines in the ‘80s revolved around Japanese-centric storylines, but even by the film’s release those elements had already become stale. Many of these stories were written as Japan was on the rise to becoming an economic powerhouse which threatened American superiority. However, by the end of the ‘80s Japan’s economic bubble had burst, they had plunged into recession, and fears of a hostile takeover by the Japanese were nothing more than paranoid comic fantasy. In this film, the Japanese are the greatest threat, calculating, brutal, and ruthless. Their inclusion in this film only undermines the deeper themes concerning Frank Castle and his warped vision of justice.

If there’s one reason this film has invited years of scorn is the lackluster performance by its star, Dolph Lundgren. As Frank Castle, Lundgren comes across like he’s the bastard son of Sylvester Stallone and fat Elvis with a crippling heroin habit. I imagine the advice Stallone gave a young Dolph on the set of Rocky IV went something like this, “Acting is nothing more than just brooding and mumbling. Its worked for me.” It certainly doesn’t help that everyone else in the film is pretty bad. Watching Louis Gossett, Jr. all I could think was, “This guy won an Oscar?”

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Sure, The Punisher isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, but its one truly criminal trait is being unmemorable. It’s just a loose patchwork quilt of a brooding junky hero, countless meaningless deaths, and the occasional explosion. When the Punisher lures a drunk acquaintance with a bottle of whiskey in a remote control car is likely the only thing I’ll remember from the film when tomorrow comes. It’s just a stupid ‘80s action movie. Anyone who ever rented videos knows we’ve never had a shortage of those.

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