The Marvel Movies: The Punisher (1989)
Made in an attempt to cash in on the superhero mania caused by 1989’s “Batman,” “The Punisher” has long been considered one of Marvel’s big-time failures.
And why not? Post-“Batman,” it wasn’t even able to garner a theatrical release, instead going straight to video in a time it should have been a huge box-office extravaganza.
It turned one of the most popular Marvel characters into a B-movie action hero, which in and of itself isn’t a failure because that’s more or less what the character is.
When the film opens, the Punisher has been on the job for five years. Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren, Ivan Drago himself), an ex-cop, watched his wife and kids murdered in front of him before being shot and left for dead, leading him to go into hiding and killing the killers, murdering the murderers, and basically being a dark psychopath.
At the outset of this film, the mobster responsible for killing Frank Castle’s family is released from prison. The Punisher takes down his entire staff, then the man himself. Short movie, right?
Wrong. We still have more than an hour to go here.
Meanwhile, the police are trying to capture the Punisher. One cop (Louis Gossett Jr.), who happens to be Frank Castle’s old partner, is convinced Castle is the Punisher despite the fact, that, you know, he’s dead. Or at least everyone thinks he’s dead (and how a guy can fake his own death is beyond me, but we probably shouldn’t ask such questions of a flick like this).
The dialogue at least doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a series of puns as characters are killed off (one says, “It’s dead in here” seconds before he is killed). But neither is the script particularly witty or even smart, and there’s certainly a piecemeal feel to the production and lack of attention to detail. (At one point, after a long battle between the Punisher and some bad guys, the Punisher leaves the room to continue to pursue the main villain … out the door he came in.)
When a Yakuza sect invades the mob and demands to take over, it sparks a gangland war, which the Punisher is only too happy to mediate as only he can. Actually at first, he doesn’t really care to, but his conscience forces him to act when the Yakuza start kidnapping the American mobster’s children.
Later, when Castle rescues the children, he whisks them away on a bus. Yes, the Punisher is reduced to being a bus driver.
Things stay pretty B-movie solemn until Castle ventures to Coney Island, where he fights a gang of ninjas who come at him down the Super Slide. It’s then that we get female ninjas with ninja-star earrings, torture devices that allow for easy escapes and gangsters toasting “to the safe return of our children” moments before the Yakuza are to bring them back. Any self-respecting gangster would be on edge, anticipating a double-cross. You know, like they got.
Add to it the Punisher brutally knifing two thugs right in front of a group of children, to which they react like their moms and dad were introducing a new friend.
Castle says things like, “Where is the dope?” and rides his motorcycle through the city’s sewers. Gone is the character’s trademark skull logo, replaced by … nothing. He simply wears all black and leather, which honestly is the one thing that makes him a hero.
“The Punisher” is in many ways a typical ’80s-era shoot-’em-up, but while it’s hardly good, it doesn’t live up to its reputation for being extraordinarily bad either. From every angle, “The Punisher” plays like, by cleaning up some language and toning down some violence, one of the “Incredible Hulk” TV movies. Now that would have been fun.
Next Time: The Star-Spangled…Catcher in the Rye?
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