The F*ckin Black Sheep: The Punisher (1989)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

The Punisher (1989)
Directed by Mark Goldblatt

A couple Black Sheeps ago, I mentioned that BLADE kick started the Marvel Universe. Ok, not the Universe that everyone knows and loves, but BLADE did help lay the groundwork for lesser-known characters to kick ass. But I was wrong. I had forgotten about those cheapie flicks from the late 80's and early 90's like CAPTAIN AMERICA that were low budget and quickly forgotten. However, they weren’t all shit. Dolph Lundgren’s THE PUNISHER remains the closest, most faithful version of Frank Castle to be put to film. And in my eyes, it placed Marvel on the map by showing it had balls. 

The plot for THE PUNISHER is simple enough (though slightly different from the comics). Castle is a former cop whose family took a mob car bomb in his place, so now he lives out his days punishing the guilty by making them dead. The film starts by killing off lots of mobsters, but when some mobster kids gets kidnapped, Castle saves them from the yakuza who want to rule the gangland. When one of the kids is unaccounted for, he teams up with his father, a jean jacket-loving gangster, to save the kid. 

It’s easy to bitch that THE PUNISHER lacks some big things like, well, the skull on his chest. That’s like Batman without a bat symbol. But that was part of the deal producers struck with Marvel, they could only use the man’s name, nothing else. Director Mark Goldblatt (now a big time editor from TRUE LIES, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) did what he could with THE PUNISHER. The sets are minimal but effective with Castle living in the sewers (riding a motorcycle no less), battling ninjas in an abandoned amusement park, or killing more ninjas in a Japanese high-rise (where I’m sure those paper walls helped keep things cheap). 

They look good enough considering this still is a B-action movie (complete with bad lines like “I don’t want to stretch things out”), which I can’t deny. Though the biggest cost probably came from blowing up a mansion (a model most likely) and the f*ck load of blood squibs, the action never lacks (even if over the top…Frank never has to reload despite always firing more rounds than is humanly possible. Seriously, check out the dock scene with the shotgun. It’s silly). 

As the tortured Castle, Dolph breaks necks (a hot chick no less), shoots, stabs, punches, kicks and stretches. He never holds back while looking sick, tired, ruined, greasy and obsessed. A man barely hanging on yet somehow he continues because that’s what he’s driven to do. While I liked both Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson as Frank, they both lacked the absolute appearance of exhaustion that Dolph gives the character. Not only that but Dolph actually resembles a fella who could handle himself, a dude who’d be trouble. Imagine Dolph today as Garth Ennis’ Frank. Old, tired, and brutal. He’s perfect. 

The rest of the cast does THE PUNISHER justice. While Louis Gossett Jr. is probably best remembered now for all those IRON EAGLE films, the man could act (he does own a shiny gold statue for AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN) and he shows it. I believe his pain when he reveals his anger toward Frank, even if the script didn’t give the man much to do. Then there’s Jeroen Krabbe. Who? I had to look up his name, but we’ve all seen him a dozen times before (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS or THE FUGITIVE). He’s the sympathetic dad/gangster who sports that mean stonewashed jean jacket. But the real bad guy is Kim Miyori, who is the perfectly evil yakuza boss…especially when she goes full white makeup. She probably has the most tense scene, one I always remember as she forces Jeroen to shove his massive revolver in his mouth while his son watches at knife point. It was brutal then, and remains brutal now.

I’ve been an avid reader of The Punisher for decades now, and I’ve encountered just about every incarnation of the character. For me, The Punisher is one cold, brutal and ruthless guy who exists in the same world with all those Superheroes, but he’s got better shit to do (like kill 125 gangsters before the film gets moving). Frank Castle has maintained his cold nature for all the film versions, but out of the three, my favorite remains the original with the only man who should play The Punisher: Dolph Lundgren




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