In salute of this weekend’s debut of Marvel Comic’s The Avengers, it’s time to rediscover another Marvel character who’s had three different film versions and hopefully one of these days, they’ll get it right. Dolph Lundgren stars in the first adaptation of The Punisher (1989).
The Punisher was always my favorite Marvel character because he didn’t have superhuman strength, he couldn’t shoot webs out of his wrists, or defeat evildoers with a metal alloy suit; he was nothing more than a badass vigilante who went out and wasted criminal scumbags left and right. He was one of the darkest characters that ever came out of the Marvel universe. So with this first film version, the writers decided to take some extra crappy liberties and change the story around.
In the comics, Captain Frank Castle was a decorated U.S. Marine whose family was killed by gangsters. Broken, disillusioned by the corrupt justice system, Castle decided to take the law into his own hands and became the Punisher who over the years forged some uneasy alliances with other Marvel heroes like Spiderman, Daredevil, and many others.
Police officer Frank Castle (Lundgren) was a dedicated cop whose family was killed in a mob hit. Believed to also be dead, Castle vanished and became the vigilante known as the Punisher. For over five years, the Punisher has waged war against the criminal element of a major American city (Sydney, Australia actually) with a body count of over one hundred and twenty-five. The mob fears him and never knows when he’ll strike next.
The film opens with a mobster who is acquitted of a crime (most likely due to the corrupt judicial system) and returns home happy and relieved. Unbeknownst to he and his mob lackeys, the Punisher crashes the festivities, kills the mobsters and blows up the house. Castle lives in the sewers where he houses his arsenal for punishing the corrupt and assorted organized criminals of the city.
At the same time fearing they could be the next target of the Punisher, the remaining mafia families join forces to not only fight against the Punisher, but also a new criminal organization, which poses a greater threat to their nefarious activities, the Japanese Yakuza.
Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) is the head of the Franco crime family (the most powerful syndicate in the city) who unites the warring families together in their common goal of killing the Punisher, but also to wage war against the Japanese mafia led by the ruthless Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori).
Castle learns of Franco’s plans that include the importation of drugs into the city through his wino informant “Shake” (Barry Otto). Castle sees this as a golden opportunity to not only eliminate old rivals, but to kill new ones as well.
The Yakuza show up “ninja style”, kill everyone, and make off with the drugs. Castle is wounded in a fight with several of them but escapes. Soon after, Lady Tanaka introduces herself to Franco and the other mob Lieutenants where she threatens them if they interfere in any of their criminal exploits. They do this very effectively by kidnapping the mobster’s children. Castle learns of this and is forced to do the right thing and save the children. He is taken into police custody where his former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) discovers that his old partner is responsible for the over one hundred murders in five years.
As the weak premise of the film progresses, Lady Tanaka and the Yakuza are still holding Franco’s son Tommy hostage. Franco busts Castle out of jail and makes an alliance with him to stop the Yakuza from taking over. Castle joins forces with the man responsible for his family’s death, in order to save Franco’s son.
The Punisher was never given an American release (for many reasons) and failed miserably at the box office. Fans the world over were outraged and letdown at the first ever big screen debut of the famed Marvel vigilante. Lundgren does his schlock best Stallone impression through the whole film which looks tiring and tries to convince you that he is the ultimate badass, all of which fail. Watching the film nearly twenty years later as a thirty-four year old adult and not a fourteen year old kid who stayed up late to catch it at 3:30 A.M. on Cinemax, really makes me wonder if the better half of my youth was wasted on movies such as this one? I asked myself the same question as the credits rolled one last time on this late 80s action turd burger.
The Punisher is available on DVD through Lions Gate Home Video.