The Punisher (1989) Movie Review

With the big budget version soon to come out, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be renewed interest in the original attempt to bring Frank Castle to the screen. But anyone planning on renting the older version should do so with low expectations. This take on the character can be entertaining and action packed, but also very flawed.

When the Mafia kills Frank Castle’s family, he is reborn as the shadowy vigilante The Punisher. Castle sets out to exterminate the mob and does an awfully good job of it, with over 200 kills in just a few years. Unfortunately, he’s done too good a job; the Mafia is so weakened that the Yakuza (the Japanese underworld) have decided to take over, using the remaining Don’s children as hostages to ensure cooperation from their parents. In light of this greater threat, and to save the lives of innocent children, The Punisher forms an uneasy alliance with the mobsters, but once this is taken care of hunting season will reopen.

Neophyte director Mark Goldblatt, who previous worked as a film editor under James Cameron, learned a lot from his former employer. He knows how to stage some terrific action scenes, with some nifty martial arts duels and blazing gunfights. He’s also smart enough to give the film a fast pace, so there are no dull spots and the audience won’t notice some of the film’s glaring flaws.

Sadly, the movie just doesn’t work. The script by Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”) has an inventive concept, but often doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, why is it such a revelation that The Punisher operates out of the sewers? Hasn’t anyone realized that that’s where things go when they don’t want to be found? How does Frank Castle get his supplies, and what does he do for money? Why does the Yakuza choose now to strike, when things have been going downhill for the Mafia for years? Why does Frank’s devoted ex-partner refuse to work with anyone, yet takes on an eager new detective with little argument? Most importantly of all, what was Frank like before his family was killed, and what was the reason for their murder?

In this case it’s not fair to blame the writer, because Yakin’s original script was much more elaborate, and was pared down drastically by the film studio. On the other hand, producer Robert Mark Kamen really has no one to blame but himself. His decision in post-production to cut 15 minutes from the film’s beginning hampers “The Punisher” dramatically. Gone is the drug raid that shows Castle as a devoted cop, as well as sequences showing him as a loving family man. We are also cheated of seeing the reason why Castle’s family was murdered in the first place. These scenes are important not only for plot, but to help us understand the transformation Castle underwent to become what he is today.

The editing is also problematic, since the cut scenes are referenced in the film. But since these scenes are never shown (except for a very brief flashback showing the death of Castle’s family), they don’t make a lot of sense. Why refer to them if we don’t know what the characters are talking about? It just confuses the movie and detracts from enjoying it.

Dolph Lundgren (“Universal Soldier”) certainly looks the part despite missing the trademark skull T-shirt. Too bad he doesn’t act like it. His Frank Castle is athletic, but very dull and easily upstaged by any other actor sharing a scene with him. However, Jeroen Krabbe (“The Odyssey”) is excellent as the crime boss somehow responsible for the death of Castle’s family. He plays his character as elegant but lethal, and knows how to make the camera focus on him in every scene. Louis Gossett Jr., a former Academy Award winner (for “An Officer and a Gentleman”), does the best he can in the thankless role of Frank’s ex-partner, who has spent the past few years searching for him. Even so, you can’t help notice that Gossett has an expression on his face that easily translates into him wishing he were somewhere else.

If watched with little expectations, “The Punisher” can be a very entertaining, albeit illogically flawed, film. The movie is best suited for action and comic book fans and the casual viewer would probably rather watch something else. For those who want to see “The Punisher” as it was originally filmed, head to your local comic book store and get the 1989 Marvel Comics adaptation. The graphic novel restores all the cut scenes and makes the movie more coherent and, ultimately, more enjoyable.

Mark Goldblatt (director) / Boaz Yakin (screenplay)
CAST: Dolph Lundgren….Frank Castle/The Punisher
Louis Gossett Jr. …. Jake Berkowitz
Jeroen Krabb’ …. Gianni Franco
Kim Miyori …. Lady Tanaka
Bryan Marshall …. Dino Moretti

Buy The Punisher on DVD