I'm Gonna Punish You

The Punisher (1989)

I feel like I have to note this each time I talk about him, but The PunisherAn anti-hero who was never meant to be a hero in the same way as the Avengers, the Punisher has taken on his own life in pop-culture, but that doesn't change the troubling qualities to his characterization. is a troubling character. A hyper-violent vigilante who stalks the night and takes out any criminal he sees is not an ideal role model. Sure, that's also BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen., but he at least has a rule that he doesn't kill. That, and we aren't encouraging people to dress up like flying rodents to stalk the night. The Punisher, though, is just a man with a whole lot of guns and even more anger, and for some reason he's become the role model of some police officers and other people we'd normally trust to protect us. These guys should not look to a vigilante for how to handle crime. The Punisher's legacy is questionable at best.

The 1989 film came out before Punisher really broke into the mainstream. His 1990s run is what defined the character for a lot of people, but the movie came before much of that and, well, doesn't really buy too heavily into the Punisher's whole vibe. He doesn't wear his famous skull t-shirt, for example, and he does seem to have more moral lines than you'd really expect from a guy mercilessly killing people left, right, and center. Frankly, this version of the character feels like he rolled out of a 1980s action film, and that's because Hollywood basically used that template for this superhero adventure. But, you know, it does kind of work in its own goofy way. It's hardly a true Punisher film but it is an enjoyably dumb action film, for what that's worth.

Five years before the start of the film Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) watched his family die in front of his eyes. The hit was meant for him, a bomb on his car, but his wife and kids loaded in first (when Frank was late getting home) and the car bomb took them out. Frank seemingly died in the explosion as well, but a half decade later he's still alive, stalking the night and taking out any mobsters he can find. He's made it his life work to bring real justice to every one of these scumbags, and that means killing all of them any way he can.

After taking out yet another one of the Italian crime leaders (in a quick bit of early movie violence), Frank manages to draw the retired boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) back into the fray. He takes over the five families, unifying them as a single unit. However smelling weakness, the local Yakuza cell, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), pushes their way in, leading to a war between the families. The Yakuza takes the kids of the mobs bosses hostage, demanding payment and fealty, and there's only one person that can stop this bloody war: Frank Castle. He just has to do it while being pursued by his old partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.), who runs a task force dedicated to taking down the Punisher stalking the streets.

As this was an action film released in 1989, this flick has all the hallmarks of action films from that era. You'll get plenty of shots of our hero shooting at guys, them shooting back, but only Frank is able to actually nail his shots. He wanders around for much of the movie like an unstoppable, gun-toting force, like a dark, sewer-dwelling Rambo, and the film never acts like it's strange or weird. It was the 1980s, this was action, and it plays out exactly like you'd expect for the era.

With that said, as the film progresses the action does get better. The early gun fights might be a bit goofy but the later action sequences, including a decent bus chase and a solid climactic tower fight, do hold up really well. They let Frank take damage, and the camera stays steady on much of the action, leading to a solid bit of excitement seeing Frank do his work. The action here still fails to seem anywhere near as realistic as anything produced in the last fifteen years or so, but for the time I give the film credit for trying to do solid action right.

I think fans of the Punisher back kin 1989 likely would have had a much bigger issue with the changes the film made to his character than with the base action. The biggest change is, of course, that he doesn't wear his iconic t-shirt. Not having the Punisher wear his skull is like having Spider-man just roll around in a green hoodie. You can't do that. Sure, Frank goes around throwing knives with skulls on them (which begs the question: where is he getting these made?) but that's not the same as wearing his iconic outfit. Hell, have the man spray paint a skull on something. That at least would make more sense.

At the same time, what the hell is Frank doing going around saving kids? Sure, he doesn't kill anyone he deems "innocent", but he's a hyper-violent vigilante. He'd accidentally save a bunch of kids that were kidnapped because he was in the right place at the right time (to kill their captors for his own reason), but going around, acting parental feels out of place for the character. It's like the studio suits demanded he do "something nice" and saving a bunch of kids was the solution. He doesn't need to be softened so stop trying to make him into a nice guy. He's the Punisher, not the Pacifier.

I do have to note, though, that the one part of the character I didn't question was Dolph Lundgren. While he sometimes gets likened to a poor man's Stallone or Arnold, coming up in action movies during that era, Lundgren can, in fact, act and carry a character pretty well. Frank is underwritten in this film, true, but Lundgren does what he can to make the Punisher feel like a dark and tortured person, all while not over emoting. It's a balancing act to both play it cold and filled with rage and I felt like the actor did it well. It's a pity his film didn't warrant a sequel because I at least would have liked to see where he could have take the role.

But then the film under-performed not only because of the changes made to Frank but also because everything about this film was under-developed. The villains are one-note and barely have any development. Everything they do is goofy, feeling like the villains were ripped from the pages of Dick Tracy and not, you know, The Punisher. The heroes are basic, the villains, worse, and the only thing the film has going for it is some decent action. That's good enough for a cable afternoon but hardly a film that will carry the Box Office.

Of course, production studio New World Pictures probably ran into the same basic issue everyone else would have with this character: how do you make the Punisher as a hero without glorifying him. There have been multiple iterations of the character on screens and each has to do something to the character to justify his existence. A guy that just wantonly kills people left, right, and center shouldn't be anyone's ideal for a role model. You either change him to make him palatable or you risk an NC-17 (or, back in 1989, X) rating on your film. This film softens Frank just enough that it does feel like it's loses the character. It makes for a less than ideal film, one that has to get by on goofy charm than hyper-violent spectacle.