As an adaptation, the 1989 Dolph Lundgren starring The Punisher is a spectacular failure. It has almost nothing to do with the Marvel Comics character other than the title character’s name. Frank Castle doesn’t even wear his trademark skull. That said, as an action flick, The Punisher isn’t all that bad. It’s got ninjas, bloody mob violence, and a body count that seems to number in the hundreds. If you squint your eyes and forget the fact that it’s supposed to be bringing a comic book character to life, The Punisher is actually a pretty good time.
Dolph Lundgren doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. The guy – in addition to having a master’s degree in chemical engineering – starred in some great movies during the ’80s and ’90s. His name often, and unfairly, gets shuffled behind the other stars of the era. There is just something about him on screen; Lundgren always looked incredibly convincing as an action hero. The way he held a gun, the way he kicks a bad guy, it always seemed to have an authenticity behind it. He brings a weight to Frank Castle, a dark intensity and huge stature. He’s menacing and believable.
The plot of The Punisher is perfectly ’80s. Frank Castle’s one-man war against the mob is disrupted when the Yakuza come to town and enter into the fray. The Punisher is happy to let all the bad guys kill each other until the Yakuza decide to kidnap all the mob lords’ children. The Punisher can’t stand by while innocent children are hurt, regardless of who their parents are. So, the guns and knives (so, so many knives) come out and the bodies pile up. It’s action from start to finish, a hail of bullets that leads bloodbath after bloodbath.
The action in The Punisher is surprisingly well shot and fun to watch. The shootouts are great, but the real awesomeness is centered around a car chase scene that features a bus full of kids. At one point, the bus rams a parked car with a dude standing on the hood. The guy leaps into the air, flies through the windshield of the bus and lands inside where he proceeds to fight the Punisher. It’s fantastic stuff and perfect example of why this movie is so damn rad.
You can’t talk about this movie without talking about Louis Gossett Jr. He shines as the detective hunting down the Punisher; the only man who believes that Frank Castle is the vigilante. He’s driven and obsessed, but not cartoonish. One of the best moments in the whole movie just features Gossett Jr. and Lundgren in a jail cell talking. There’s a real sense of pain and frustration as the two men, former allies, realize they will never again see eye to eye. Gossett Jr. tells Lundgren he’s sick and that he needs help; “What do you call 125 murders in 5 years, Frank?” he says. “A good start,” Lundgren growls in response. It’s amazing.
Directed by Mark Goldblatt and written by Boaz Yakin, The Punisher never managed a theatrical release in the United States. Instead, it went straight to video and laserdisc where it no doubt traumatized thousands of parents who rented this for their children thinking it was a comic book movie. Goldbatt and Yakin went on to have very successful careers in Hollywood with a list of film credits you have to see to believe. This might seem hard to swallow given all the flack The Punisher gets, but if you watch again with a fresh set of eyes, you’ll see it’s a fairly well crafted flick.
If you, like most folks, haven’t watched this film in decades, give it another go. Just forget that it’s supposed to be the Frank Castle we all know and love. If you give it a fair shot, you’ll find that Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher is a pretty great 80s action movie. It’s brutal, violent, and really well put together.