Box Office Failures Week: The Punisher (1989)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rob Brown is probably the only person to write for our site that has an IMDB page. That alone gives him the credit to tell us all about one of the first Marvel movies to hit the screen.

Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is a big city police detective trying to take down the mob while also trying to stop the Punisher, a mysterious vigilante with a body count in the triple digits, who he believes to be Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren), his former partner that had seemingly died in a car bombing that took the lives of Castle’s entire family.

In an effort to eliminate the Punisher once and for all, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe), the most powerful organized crime boss in the city, attempts to unite all of the crime families, which draws the attention of not only the Punisher, but the Japanese Yakuza, led by the treacherous Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). She offers Franco a deal, which would essentially make HER the top crime boss in the city, which he rejects, leading to the kidnapping of all of the children of Franco and his men.

The Punisher’s mostly successful rescue attempt of the innocent children from the clutches of the Yakuza leads to his capture by the police, which brings him face to face with Berkowitz, confirming the detective’s worst fears, that this scourge of the underworld is a very changed Frank Castle. As he’s being taken to another facility, the police transport is ambushed by Franco’s men, who take Castle and force him into an uneasy partnership with the man responsible for the death of his family to bring back the mobster’s son, Tommy, who had been left behind on the previous raid.

Together, Castle and Franco storm the Yakuza headquarters and defeat Tanaka, saving Tommy in the process. Once again at the top of the criminal food chain, Franco attempts to kill his reluctant partner, the only remaining obstacle in his path, but the critically injured vigilante still manages to get the best of him after a brief struggle, finally avenging the death of his family. The Punisher tells a grieving Tommy to not grow up to be like his father, because he’ll be watching and waiting. With that warning, he disappears just as Berkowitz and his men arrive on the scene.

I loved this movie as a teenager, as it was very similar to many of the shoot-em-ups of the eighties and nineties that I grew up on. It was fun, fast-paced, action-packed, and starred the guy who played Rocky Balboa’s greatest nemesis just a few years earlier, and I feel like it’s actually improved as I’ve gotten older.

In the nearly three decades or so since I first watched this movie, I’ve definitely become more of a fan of the Punisher, having seen him pass through the hands of many creators and become more of a fleshed-out character with some pretty bizarre detours along the way, including becoming a mob hitman himself and a LITERAL angel of death at his lowest point. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a strong character before, but at the time of the movie, he had only just graduated to his own solo book (he’d soon have three) after popping up as a villain of the week or guest star for over a decade in the pages of Spider-Man, Captain America, and Daredevil. There wasn’t too much to go on as far as backstory that didn’t involve other Marvel characters, so they kept it pretty simple in the film with him being a one-man army against organized crime. In fact, he’s almost a side character in his own movie, which actually plays to the strength of the film’s cast.

Academy Award winner Louis Gossett, Jr. (Iron Eagle, HBO’s Watchmen), does much of the dramatic heavy lifting in this film, portraying the grizzled older cop that wants to solve the mystery behind the apparent death of his partner once and for all while also suspecting the worst, that his former friend is just as much of a criminal as the men they once tried to bring to justice. Through him, we also learn much of Castle’s backstory. In an early cut of the film, there was an entire first act that showed the two in better days, but here, we only see a Frank Castle that’s too far gone.

In the title role, Dolph Lundgren is completely believable as a killing machine, which is helped by his real-life background as a champion martial artist (and also his previous roles playing killing machines). He had also earned a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering before deciding to pursue modeling and acting as a career. In this film, he mostly only speaks when he has to, when he’s spoken to, or when he’s trying to get information, and even then, it’s mostly to intimidate his prey or to tell his captors to fuck off. He’s a bit wooden, but the character as we see him is meant to be pretty one-note, which breaks a little when we see him reflect on his past life or when he makes the decision to rescue the children of the criminals he’s sworn to kill. At times, we hear his inner monologue, where his craziness and dedication to his mission really comes through. Coincidentally, his illustrated counterpart would soon go on to communicate with readers in a similar way, through the pages of his “war journal”.

The main villain in the story, who soon becomes the lesser of two evils, is Gianni Franco, who is portrayed by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe (The Living Daylights, The Fugitive). Like Berkowitz, he also wants to bring an end to the Punisher’s reign of terror, but for completely different reasons. In the comic, Wilson Fisk (aka The Kingpin) had been the chief organized crime figure in the Marvel universe, but Krabbe’s Franco is a fine enough stand-in, even if his accent slips from time to time and he isn’t the least bit believable at being Italian, which is further exacerbated by the over-the-top cartoonish “It’s a-me! Mar-io!” performances of many of his short-lived henchman. He’s a great actor, though, which is one of the ways in which this movie overachieves.

The cast is rounded out by Kim Miyori (The Grudge 2, TV’s St. Elsewhere) as the ruthless Yakuza boss, Lady Tanaka, who always seems to be multiple steps ahead of the competition, Nancy Everhard (Deepstar Six) as Berkowitz’s new partner that also believes his Castle theory, and Barry Otto (Strictly Ballroom, The Howling III) as the perpetually drunk, rhyme-spewing stage actor/informant that gets Punisher his intel.

The movie, originally slated to film in the US, was filmed in Australia for monetary reasons, but still carried a decent enough budget of about nine million dollars. Director Mark Goldblatt had only helmed one film previously, the horror action comedy Dead Heat, and would never direct another feature film. However, he was already well-established behind the scenes as an editor, where he had a hand in putting together some of the most iconic action films of all time, which already included The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando, and would go on to include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Starship Troopers and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film was written by Boaz Yakin, who was just starting out, but would go on to write Prince of Persia and Now You See Me, while also directing such films as Fresh (which he also wrote), Jason Statham’s Safe, and one of Denzel Washington’s biggest hits, Remember the Titans”  Robert Mark Kamen, the film’s producer, helped punch up the script and had already established himself on the action scene, having written the Karate Kid films. He would go on to write Lethal Weapon 3, The Fifth ElementThe TransporterTaken and the recent Gerard Butler hit Angel Has Fallen.

The film was shot in 1988, but due to financial difficulties on the part of the production company (Roger Corman’s New World Pictures) and the lack of interest on the part of the new owners, the film languished. It received only a limited theatrical release overseas and screened at some comic conventions before eventually being sold to Live Entertainment (now Lionsgate, who would go on to produce 2004’s The Punisher and 2008’s Punisher: War Zone) and released on home video in the United States in June of 1991. I would probably rent it a good half a dozen times by the end of the year.

“The Punisher” isn’t just a good early representation of the comic book movie genre, but a good late-eighties action film in general that just happened to have an unusually great pedigree for a film with its reputation. I don’t necessarily think it would have been an enormous hit if it was given a fair shake, but it certainly would have done better than Marvel’s other big screen attempt at the time, the live action Captain America, which was a complete miss all around and featured Steve Rogers using the “Can you pull the car over, I think I’m going to be sick” excuse to get out of a jam TWICE. Frank Castle’s origin may have changed in the film, making him an ex-cop instead of a former Marine, but at least he didn’t threaten to shit himself in Ned Beatty’s car.

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