The Punisher (1989)

On paper, this must have looked like a brilliant idea. Take one of the most popular non-super-powered comic book characters of the era, use the core of their story to tell a standard vigilante cop story, and string together a bunch of fight sequences with an up-and-coming action star at the helm. It was the late 80’s and people were flocking to see that stuff, but for whatever reason, this Mark Goldblatt directed flick fell flat on its face.

The film has a very straightforward plot, which isn’t a problem as plenty of adequate action movies are also very by-the-numbers. Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was a cop and then his family got killed by the mob, so now he lives underground (literally in the sewer system) and spends all his time killing mobsters whilst being called The Punisher. Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) leads the mafia, Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) leads the Yakuza, they’re at war with each other and Frank is more than happy to kill them both whilst chuckling when they kill each other for him. The Yakuza steals The Mob’s kids, so Frank saves the kids and then teams up with The Mob to kill The Yakuza first because he’s a big softie.

So far, so good. Backs are stabbed, deals are broken, plots are twisted, and lots of bullets are fired. You’ve got a whole bunch of racial stereotypes and epithets in Pasta-Wearing Mafia and Yellow Peril Yakuza, a dash of homophobia whenever someone wants to talk tough, and a bunch of kinky squeaking from the two main Yakuza being female and constantly wearing PVC haute couture. Things explode, people are shot, bodies are injured, and the end fight is chock full of bloody violence both punchy and shoot.

On top of that there are side characters, who all do their job perfectly well. Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) tells us everything we need to know about Frank before he became The Punisher, Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard) gets Berkowitz to tell us everything we need to about Frank before he became The Punisher and gets to be the young, spunky sidekick, and Zoska Aleece plays an unnamed, mute assassin that gets to hang around Lady Tanaka whilst wearing matching fetish gear, having throwing star earrings and a swiss-army-knife shoe, and then gets to be the mini-boss in the long fight with The Punisher before he gets to finish the two family heads off. Barry Otto also gets to do the second-best performance in the film as Shake, the alcoholic actor associate of The Punisher who spends the whole time looking like he’s seen way too much shit in his life and speaking in verse.

Yet, despite all of that good stuff and a shoot out in a fun house, everything manages to be dull and low stakes. Ninety-one people (excluding those injured in explosions or the like) get killed on screen, by a wide variety of fun and innovative slaughter, but the film just plods along and shows everything through repetitive, front-on shots. The sets are magnificent, wonderfully selected, light, and dressed, and events just happen in them. The fight scene, handled by a team of full contact karate practitioners, are technically great but are badly edited so there is a disconnect between the hit and the impact. On top of that, the sound effects are dull and all the hits, shots, and explosions end up being mushy, damp squibs. Individual moments are impressive, but the sequence of events never manages to get your heart rate going. The best example of its problem is a bus chase that looks like it was done at 20mph, and has twenty kids that you never think are in any danger. Things happen, but none of them have any impact or leave you feeling all that much afterwards.

Other than one, very important thing: Dolph Lundgren does the single greatest Frank Castle ever put to film. With his utterly haggard looks, wire-taut body and amazing presence, he manages to be perfect in every way for playing someone utterly addicted to and sustained by vengeance. Others, most notably Jon Bernthal, have done good jobs in the role, but this performance is something else. He’s not some super-soldier on a mission or a redeemable troubled soul: he’s just a husk of a person who has nothing left but habit.

When he doesn’t feel pain, you aren’t sure if it’s because he doesn’t care what happens to his shell, if he just likes to feel something, or even if he’s getting warm fuzzies from the prospect of dying and being gone from his existence. When he gets busted by the cops his face is nonchalant inconvenience, when his friend tries to talk to him it’s filled with indifference to the futility of him trying to explain what he’s done. It’s someone who, by the end of the film, is reported to have killed one hundred eighty-five people in revenge for the death of three, and then plans on carrying on going because he forgot what else to do. The clear psychological damage comes across using a combination of mime, restrained delivery, and is just fascinating. He’s not a hero, he’s not even really a person any longer.

If that’s not enough to make you get through the whole film then that’s totally understandable; this is a Trash movie, all told, and one stunning performance doesn’t make up for that. It’s comic-book approach to storytelling doesn’t mesh with its attempts as gritty realism, and for all it’s pomp and build-up, the final moments just fizzle out. Danger is told, rather than felt, and, outside of Lundgren looking seriously unwell, people don’t give off the kind of emotion needed to get you to care about them. Time has not been kind to this film, as there are both better action and better cartoon films to watch. But trust me on Dolph Lundgren’s performance and at the very least consider watching the supercut of his Frank Castle.

The Raggedyman

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