The Punisher (1989) – Directed by Mark Goldblatt – Starring Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Miyori, and Nancy Everhard.
What the f*ck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?
Work in progress.
THE PUNISHER is way better than it needs to be, and a perfect example of what can happen if you hire total professionals like Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Jeroen Krabbe to be in your movie.
Make no mistake, THE PUNISHER is a pure, 1980s R-rated, B-movie action flick. There’s loads of violence, loads of swearing, a few cheesy comedic lines, and loads of violence. It also has a pretty decent script, in that it creates situations that force us to look at the Punisher in a non-heroic light; the film could have easily just offered up 90 minutes of Frank Castle (Lundgren) killing mobsters and hit their core cinematic audience, but the filmmakers make Frank challenge his own ethics.
One of the most fascinating aspects of THE PUNISHER is how Lundgren plays Castle as so incredibly haunted his killings have become almost perfunctory. It’s literally like he doesn’t know how to do anything else, including giving up. When he gets wind of a massive drug shipment coming in to the docks and then witnesses the whole shipment go massively wrong as the Yakuza show up and start killing the Italian-American mobsters, the smart play would be for Frank to simply sit back and watch and better assess the situation. The smart play would be to let the two sides pick each other off, as he strategizes later in the film, but he can’t help himself. When one person takes a shot at him from an even higher perch than the one he’s in, he fires back, and then decides to jump down into the fray because what the hell, right?
The introduction of the Yakuza into the film is a really smart move. The opening sequences set up the return of crime boss Gianni Franco (Krabbe). The Punisher has devastated the city’s organized crime scene, and Franco feels he’s the man to unite all of the family’s under one roof – his. The massive drug shipment was his way of bringing everyone together, and now the Yakuza have not only screwed that up, they’re making a play to take 75% of the mob’s profit. I really love what the film does with Franco – all of the other mob bosses are all p*ss and fire, wanting to fight, but Franco is a pragmatist, seeing that these Japanese interlopers are the real deal. Instead of being an act of masculine aggression, Franco’s declaration that “we’re going to war” is reserved, and almost resigned to defeat.
The Yakuza then kidnap the children of the American mobsters and put Frank in a moral dilemma: let the Yakuza and mafia kill each other, or step in and save the children.
Blessedly, THE PUNISHER is not an origin movie. Instead, the film does what I’ve been saying more films should do: start us midstream and fold the origin in as we go. We get flashbacks at this point in the film that show how Frank’s family was killed. Frank’s conscious is given voice by Shake (Barry Otto), a bum who serves as Frank’s informant. Shake often rhymes when he speaks because he used to be an actor, which seems pretty stupid unless you imagine that every actor you know speaks in rhymes when he’s off the set.
And then it’s pretty awesome.
Shake calls out Frank’s lack of activity. “I punish the guilty,” Frank insists.
“And as a result, the innocents must suffer?” Shake asks.
This exchange eventually gets Frank out of his stupor and he goes and saves the kids. There’s a fun action scene in an abandoned amusement park, which ends with Frank getting captured by the Yakuza, and then he steals a bus to rescue all of the kids except for Franco’s son. I love how the action scenes are basic and violent. When the film tries to get a bit artsy and film a prolonged sequence under red lights, it falls a bit flat. We don’t need it. Watching Frank and the Yakuza punch and kick and stab and shoot each other is enough.
Lundgren is fantastic from start to finish here. It’s easy to say it looks like he’s sleepwalking through the film, but he’s committed to this idea of Frank being burned out; he gives the part exactly what it calls for, and that’s what actors are supposed to deliver. When he gets arrested and his old partner Jake (Gossett, Jr.) confronts him after five years of chasing him, Frank insists, “Frank is dead!”
Whether he is dead is part of what makes this film so interesting beyond all the killing. Frank can try to hide inside the Punisher persona, but what Shake and Jake keep trying to do is pull the old Frank Castle back out.
They’re only partly successful. After Frank is moved to help get the kids back (which he does on his own, without the mob’s help), the mob breaks him out of police custody and this time, Frank has to work directly with Franco. It’s an uneasy alliance, of course, but they get Franco’s kid and with the Yakuza eliminated, it’s left to Franco and Frank to settle their score. With Castle being more severely injured, Franco has the upper hand, but his kid doesn’t want to see his dad kill the man who saved him. He doesn’t listen. The two men fight to the death and Frank wins. The kid picks up the discarded gun and threatens to kill Frank.
In the film’s most chilling moment, Frank gets on his knees in front of the kid and puts the gun to his forehead, telling the kid to pull the trigger.
So, yeah, good parenting skills on display from the man in black.
The kid doesn’t pull the trigger and as Frank leaves he actually threatens the kid! Seriously, he’s not like, “Go to school. Eat your vitamins. Pray to a non-existent God. Live a life on non-violence.” Instead, he tells the kid, “Grow up to be a good man. Because if you don’t … I’ll be waiting.”
The moment strongly reminded me of that moment in Kill Bill when Beatrice (Uma Thurman) knows that the kid of the woman she just killed deserves her own chance at revenge someday, and that by getting her own revenge, she’s also made herself the justifiable target of a future revenge. It’s a powerful scene about the circle of violence, and we see that here, too. Now, THE PUNISHER doesn’t have the same lofty cinematic ambitions as Kill Bill, but Frank is acknowledging that the violence he’s committed this day could create a future enemy that has to be killed, too. He’s letting the kid know that he’s not going anywhere, so where Beatrice is accepting of the circle of violence, Frank is looking to cut it off before it comes back on him.
I really like THE PUNISHER. It’s a low-budget, B-grade ’80s action movie, but it’s one of the very best of the genre. There’s no mucking about here to clean this story up – it’s R-rated and doesn’t shy away from it. Louis Gossett, Jr. is amazing and my one real complaint with the movie is that his story disappears from the film for too long in the middle portion, and that the subplot with his partner (Nancy Everhard, who was also in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk the same year that THE PUNISHER was released) doesn’t really go anywhere.
The rest of the film does, however. If you’re looking to watch a great, classically-rendered superhero movie, well, this ain’t it. But if you’re looking for a good ’80s action movie, THE PUNISHER fits the bill nicely.