Why is it so fucking hard to get The Punisher right?
After four separate actors have been hurled at the role like sacrifices dumped into a skull-faced volcano, it would be a fair statement to say that while none of them have truly felt like the definitive version of the role, each one nailed a particular trait of the character featured over his 40+ year history. I guess it’s a testament to a character created to take advantage of the brutal, right-wing revenge dramas that followed in the wake of Death Wish in 1974 that he has so many different aspects to his personality but there’s always the politics to consider. After all, even by his own admission, Frank Castle’s criminal reaping alter ego is no hero and his murderous crusade is born out of revenge and to fuel his hunger for a war he never wants to end rather than more altruistic aims, so how do you serve up such a fundamentally unlikable protagonist to audiences?
Well, in 1989 they went with immense levels of campy ultra violence.
Opening with a multi coloured procession of credits that makes it look like Tommy Wiseau has attempted to make a Bond title sequence after a failed Kickstarter plea we are introduced to Frank Castle, an ex-cop whose family was murdered by the mob by brutal use of a flashback. When he’s not roaring aimlessly through the sewers on a motorbike or indulging in nude brooding by candle light, Frank blows away criminals with reckless abandon under the nickname The Punisher. However, the members of the mob have worse things to worry about than Frank or their devastatingly awful accents (the movie was shot in Sydney and boy, does it show) as the Yakuza have come to town to take over and their opening bid is to slaughter everyone in a mafia style suit and abduct the children of the survivors to sell them into child slavery – a bold first move I’m sure you’ll agree, let’s see if it pays off…
Unable to fend off an enemy who pins people to walls with earrings that double as throwing knives, an uneasy truce is struck up between Castle and Gianni Franco, the only surviving member and very possibly the man who order the hit on Castle’s family on the first place. As Detective Burkowitz – Castle’s old partner who is desperate to bring him in and save his soul – closes in and The Punisher prepares to go to war with an ally who is as trustworthy as a klepto housesitter, can the vigilante hope to survive, or does he even want to?
The Punisher isn’t exactly what you would call a “good” movie; it’s clunky, stilted and frequently dumber than a dozen pandas trying to figure out a rubik’s cube and yet taken as a clone of bigger budgeted, idiotic action fare that frequently strafed the 80’s (Cobra, I’m looking at you) it’s actually a lot better than you remember. Content to be not much more than a frenzied bullet sprayer, it succeeds at it’s underachieving aim with mean spirited ambition and boasting a body count that would eclipse your regular coup of a South American dictator.
Dolph Lundgren, as cinema’s first ever Punisher, literally fills the role well – and by that I mean with his gargantuan frame and a jaw line you could plane wood on he is the exact physical match to what Castle looked like in the comics at the time and if only they’d put a fucking skull on him you get the feeling that Punisher ’89 would be much more loved than it actually is. Beyond the muscles and a permanent 5 o’clock shadow that looks sprayed on, Dolph’s actual performance comes across like he’s drunk alcohol while on medication and yet it seems pretty apt for a man who chooses to voluntarily deny himself sleep and regularly meditate nude in a sewer. Supporting players Louis Gossett Jr. as Frank’s old partner (playing, essentially, Louis Gossett Jr. with a gun) and Jerome Krabbé (who with this, The Living Daylights and No Mercy had quite the run of eerily rational, smug, euro-villians) as the mob boss forced to go to Castle for help do their best to elevate Lundgren’s heavy lidded line readings but make no mistake, the ever growing pile of leaking bodies is the real star of the show here.
The problems with the movie are too many to mention – having the head of the Yakuza in full Kabuki dress for the climax is painfully unnecessary and Castle and Franco’s clumsy wrestling match at the end is hardly an epic dive across the finish line – but what former editor turned director Mark Goldblatt lacks in character development or logic he more than makes up for in bloody exuberance and as unenlightened as it might sound, the film is rarely dull and rockets along like shit off a slide.
As a brainless actioner that’s an amusing example of it’s time era, The Punisher is still probably the best Marvel adaptation at the time but I realise that’s not really saying much considering the most it had to live up to was Howard The fucking Duck, but for what it is, it’s harmless fun.
Well… not harmless for the mafia, but…