BlokeBusting The Essentials #94: The Punisher (1989)
#94: The Punisher
The Punisher That Time Forgot
Ok. Ok, Ok, Ok. This one was….. different. And I don’t think I can really say more without jumping right in!
Right. So this film exists. That was surprise #1 for me. I had never heard of there being a Punisher film (or anything else, come to that) before the 2004 entry with Thomas Jane. And after watching this entry, I’m not 100% sure I can say that there IS a Punisher film before that. It’s a little like the Dollar Store brand version of a popular drink, or a cheap knock-off watch with “Rulex” on the underside. It bears the same idea but has somewhat different execution. Does that make it less enjoyable? Let’s find out…
This film is set in America. This film is set in modern time for when it was filmed. And this film was based on the idea of The Punisher. And that’s your setting. Honestly you don’t need to know much else. Yes, there’s a whole bunch of crime bosses who apparently just run things together, there’s a new kid in town” who’s a lethal gang of ninjas (no, I’m not kidding) and there’s a plot involving child kidnapping and a cop who refuses to believe that Frank Castle is dead (and given the lack of a corpse, the rising body count and this guy being his partner and really knowing him well, I’m kinda shocked that literally NOBODY ELSE in the precinct is willing to believe him), but it’s actually un-important to know this as you watch the film. Because the two main reasons to watch this film are:
Plenty of deaths in the 80’s style & occasional, repeated Dolph Lundgren butt.
There’s also the silhouette of DL’s testicles as well in both butt shots, but we’ll leave those alone…
- Frank Castle / The Punisher (Dolph Lundgren)
This is probably the weirdest choice I’ve ever seen for casting a lead actor. It’s nothing against Dolph himself, it’s just a very odd move. I feel like they decided to make the character less talkative and more shooty-shooty and so they weren’t looking for someone with a history of dramatic roles. And why do I think this? Well, there’s a scene where they have him shoot up a casino. In a physical representation of the guitar solo in the full version of My Sharona, The Punisher spends a solid minute or so of time shooting up a poker table, then one bank of machines, then another, then another, then a craps table, then another bank of machines, then he explodes some machines, then some more, then some more, then he shoots a guy, then he shoots some tables, then some more machines…… and so on. You might think I’m embellishing for comedic effect. I promise you that I’m not. (Video is a bit NSFW, so be warned)
- Everyone Else.
Um. There’s other people in this film. There’s really nothing of any importance that occurs with them. This film isn’t that kind of film. Mostly the majority of adult figures in this film fall into 3 catagories:
1) Bad guys who will get killed by Frank.
2) A single weird guy who helps Frank.
3) Police officers.
And that’s it. There’s no character development among any of the grown-ups. So yeah, that’s all I have for that.
The Feel Of The Film
This film does know what it is. It’s filled with guns, knives, bad dialogue and worse special effects. But you don’t actually mind that. Because it’s a cheesy 80’s film. If you show this to ANYONE, they’ll know exactly when it was made and the sort of people it was aimed at. Now, does it feel like a superhero film? Not really. An Anti-hero film, yes! And those can be fun. Does it feel like a film I’d want to re-watch? Not really, but I am glad I watched it in the first place. But the biggest question is:
Does this feel like The Punisher?
Nope. Not at all. They got the backstory right, they got the overall idea right, they got the lack of respect for personal property right. But at no point in the film does it feel like you’re watching The Punisher. And that’s in no small part due to the astonishing lack of his iconic logo outside of a few knife handles. But anyway, here’s a few things that I thought worked in its favour a little.
- The Bad Effects
Yeah, this actually worked well for the film. Each knife blade is clearly held in and the “blood” is effectively water with red food colouring in it. But it still works. You wanted an 80’s camp action film? You’ve got it, just on a bit of a budget!
- The Sheer Number Of Villains
Again, this film was made so you could watch Frank mow down villain after villain. And since there were many crime bosses, there were many, many, MANY goons. So you were never less than about 3 minutes away from a fight scene or a cheesy villain monologue.
- The Kids
This was a fun plot point, which actually lead to a good last fight in the film. Sadly they really only treated the kids as extras for 95% of the time, so you didn’t get much with them outside of a line each and a hostage scenario. But still, it works!
And with that, it’s over to Bubba Castle-Wheat!
One of the most interesting things about this film is that in certain circles, this is actually a very entertaining movie. The problem is that it barely resembles the Punisher. Instead, it’s a pretty great low budget late 70’s/early 80’s violent cop movie despite the fact that it came out at the very end of the 80’s. There’s plenty of violent deaths, some mob influence, and while they managed to get a few elements of the Punisher story in there like Frank Castle’s tragic origin story and the Punisher task force, but he was terribly miscast with Dolph Lundgren and his grease paint five o’clock shadow. I actually do quite enjoy this movie each time I watch it, there are so many fun but weird touches like a dozen ninjas coming down a giant fun house slide, or the Punisher unleashing more bullets than would be humanly possible on a mob casino, even his weird drunken, rhyming Shakespearean actor informant. It all adds up to an oddly fun experience despite its many many flaws.
As far as the importance in superhero cinematic history, this was early in the Marvel licencing days and it was made pretty much the same year as DC’s Batman, only with a fraction of the budget. Excluding Howard the Duck, this would have been the first well known Marvel character to get their own theatrical release. That is until the distribution company New World International had financial issues and wasn’t able to release the film in the US until it sold the home video rights to what would become Lionsgate a couple years later. One of the most telling things about the era when this film was released is that they never utilize the Punisher’s iconic skull logo, instead they just give a subtle nod by giving him skulls on the hilt of his daggers. Stan Lee has said that he argued against the logo at the time because he thought viewers unfamiliar with the comics wouldn’t know what it was supposed to be and wouldn’t like it. It’s a fascinating little time capsule of superhero cinema during a time when most filmmakers didn’t know what to do with them.
So, we’re here at the final hurdle. It’s time to work out:
1) Would I recommend this film to others?
2) Does it deserve to be on the list?
3) If so, where does it stand?
So, in regular order, let’s pick these ones off:
- Maybe. It really does depend on the person, what mood they’re in and how well I know them. This film works for some people but will be VERY dull and boring for others. As long as you’re willing to go in expecting not much and being willing to run with some of the worst Stormtrooper aiming in history, you’ll probably have a fun time.
- Honestly, yes. There’s a few things that are fun, there’s some cliches that you end up enjoying and it’s one of the earliest Marvel entries, so it gets points for that.
- Ok. Here’s the thing that I had to ask myself. Was this film less boring than BVS, more diving into itself than B&R, less of a change to the comics than TASM? After all that, I think I have my answer:
- The Crow
- Dr Strange
- Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
- Batman: The Killing Joke
- Superman 3
- The Wild Wild World Of Batwoman
- The Punisher
- Batman & Robin
- The Amazing Spider-Man
- BvS: Dawn Of Justice
So there you have it! It’s slightly more entertaining than the others, as well as being important enough to warrant standing above the bottom of the barrel. And so, until next time, keep your eyes and ears peeled for that tell-tale sound of a motorbike from the sewers!