The Punisher (1989)

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Dolph Lundgren takes on the role of Marvel’s vigilante hero in this underrated B-movie that has a bit of notoriety.

Five years ago, Frank Castle’s life was destroyed by the death of his family. Having survived the blast that killed his wife and two daughters, and faking his death, Frank lives underground and decides to become a one-man army against all criminals. He becomes known as The Punisher. In his five years as The Punisher, he has killed 125 mobsters. When his latest target is Dino Moretti, the incident forces mob boss Gianni Franco to come out of retirement in hopes to hatch a plan to unify all the families to retaliate against the Punisher.

However, a new element has arrived in the form of the Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka. Tanaka plans to also unite the families but under their rule. When Franco and cohorts refuse, Tanaka decides to kidnap the boss’ children to ensure they will unite under them. To make matters worse, both the return of Franco and the Yakuza have made Frank come out of hiding. As Frank learns about the kidnappings, he is forced to make a decision that will lose the purpose of his work as The Punisher. In the midst of the chaos, Frank’s ex-partner is convinced that he is still alive and is The Punisher, and looks to find him to get answers.

In the 80’s, there was an attempt to make films based on Marvel characters. After the success of Marvel in television, such as the live-action Incredible Hulk series and the animated series Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, an attempt at a Spider-Man movie was to be set up at Cannon Films, but failed to produce. However, when Marvel Comics was purchased by New World Entertainment, they opted an attempt to make a film based on their iconic vigilante character, The Punisher, created by Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr.

With Stan Lee as consultant on the film, the decision was made to take the iconic “skull” off the shirt of the hero and instead have the skulls at the end of his knives. In the role of Frank Castle is Dolph Lundgren, who sports dark hair as opposed to his natural blonde hair. The problem isn’t that Lundgren isn’t a bad Punisher, because quite frankly, he actually pulls it off nicely. Lundgren also gets to use his martial arts skills in the film’s action sequences. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé also makes the most of his role as mob boss Gianni Franco, The Punisher’s arch enemy who ends up having to team up with him to face a common enemy.

Louis Gossett Jr. makes the most of the role as Jake Berkowitz, Frank’s ex-partner who is convinced that The Punisher is his one-time friend and partner with Nancy Everhard as his rookie partner who is also convinced that Frank is the Punisher. Australian actor Barry Otto gives a bit of comic relief in the role of alcoholic beggar Shake, who is the Punisher’s only true ally and informer. Kim MIyori hams it up as lead villain Lady Tanaka with her mannerisms as her intentions are known from her introductory scene.

The problem isn’t so much the acting, but the script by Boaz Yakin. Knowing full well that the film would be based on a comic book, the script is that of a comic book level. Perhaps this is why Miyori looks forced to ham things up while thankfully, Lundgren, Gossett, and Krabbé make the most of the script and were able to get past the campy lines and make the film watchable. Even in an impressive film debut, Irish-born Brian Rooney even gets past the campy nature of the film as Franco’s son Tommy, whose kidnapping forces the rivals to join forces.

As for the action, it is pretty brutal that starts with Lundgren using the environment to take out the gang of Dino Moretti, played in a cameo by Bryan Marshall. However, the major shootout comes in the form of a massive use of firepower inside a casino run by the mob, taking out all comers. However, the film’s notoriety is the film’s martial arts fight sequences. In cinema, a fight choreographer is usually employed to show moves for the actors who are engaged in the fight scenes. Instead, in an ingenious move, Lundgren, a 2nd-degree black belt in Kyokushinkai Karate, improvised his fight scenes with fellow karatekas Kenji Yamaki and Hirofumi Kanayama, as well as former karate champion turned Hong Kong film star/security owner Kim-Maree Penn, who doubled for the late Zoshka Mizak as Tanaka’s daughter. The improvisation brought a sense of authenticity in the film’s fight scenes.

The Punisher is not a completely bad film, but suffers from a comic book level script. Dolph Lundgren actually makes a good Punisher, especially when it comes to his improvised fight scenes. However, the script truly makes the film a bit meh. Nevertheless, the film can be viewed as an 80’s action flick with all the campiness despite some performances much better than others.

WFG RATING: B-

A New World (Australia) Pictures production. Director: Mark Goldblatt. Producer: Robert Mark Kamen. Writer: Boaz Yakin, based on the Marvel Comics character by Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. Cinematography: Ian Baker. Editing: Tim Wellburn.

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbé, Kim Miyori, Nancy Everhard, Barry Otto, Bryan Marshall, Brian Rooney, Zoshka Mizak, Kenji Yamaki, Hirofumi Kanayama, Todd Boyce, Lani John Tupu, Larry McCormick, John Negroponte.

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