The Punisher (1989)

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Frank Castle is the city’s most wanted, and most mysterious, vigilante, known as “The Punisher”. He has killed 125 people in the last 5 years. Castle is an ex-police officer, whose family was murdered in a mob hit. Living in the sewers and waging a one-man war against organized crime, his only friend is an old alcoholic named Shake, who speaks in rhyme for reasons unexplained. Now legally declared dead, Castle strikes back from beyond the grave, killing mobsters wherever he can find them. Due to his war against them, the Mafia families have weakened, forcing one of the family leaders, Gianni Franco, to come in and take control. Franco has a plan to bring the families together as one unit. This, however, has attracted the attention of the Yakuza, Asia’s most powerful crime syndicate. Led by Lady Tanaka, the Yakuza decide to take over the Mafia families and all of their interests. In order to sway the mobsters to their cause, they kidnap their children and hold them for ransom.

Shake pleads with the Punisher to save the children, who are likely to be sold into childhood slavery regardless of whether the Mafia give into the demands. While he is able to save most of the children with a .45 Thompson M1928 submachine gun, the Mafia leader’s son is taken away to the Yakuza headquarters. Furthermore, the Punisher is taken into custody by the police, only to be freed by Franco’s men. Franco persuades the Punisher to help him save his son, and stop the Japanese criminal underworld from taking root in America. Franco and the Punisher raid the Yakuza headquarters, fight and kill all the Yakuza, including Lady Tanaka and her daughter. Upon being reunited with his son, Franco betrays the Punisher in an effort to kill him, but the Punisher wins the duel, killing Franco. As the police arrive, Castle warns Franco’s son not to follow the sins of his father, and vanishes from the scene.


Before the current superhero craze, there was a time when film studios were trying to get superheroes out to the public and recreate the success of Tim Burton’s Batman. I can’t think of any that were as big of a success as most were commercial flops and reviled in certain circles. This brings us to The Punisher, a character who is very difficult to bring to the big screen without watering the character down to a point in which he is unrecognizable. Did this film manage to do so?

What is this about?

The avenging angel of Marvel Comics fame comes to life in this action-adventure thriller. Dolph Lundgren stars as Frank Castle, a veteran cop who loses his entire family to a mafia car bomb. Only his ex-partner (Louis Gossett Jr.) believes Castle survived the blast. Frank becomes The Punisher, a shadowy, invincible fighter of evil who hides out in a labyrinth of sewers and lives for one purpose: to exact brutal revenge on his mob enemies.

What did I like?

Action.  This is obviously an 80s action flick, first and foremost, because the action is almost totally nonstop for the entire 90 minute runtime. Watching the fights, stunts, and whathaveyou was a pleasure. If there is one highlight to this flick, it is the action and stunts that take place. Seeing as this is a comic book movie, you shouldn’t really expect any less, though.

Violence. The Punisher is not called that for nothing. I was concerned before watching this that they would have watered him down to Saturday morning levels a la 90s Spider-Man cartoon. In some early scenes, though, we watch as he hangs a thug and then guns down the other thugs with blood spurting everywhere. Granted, it wasn’t as graphic as I believe would work better, it is still pretty damn fantastic.

What didn’t I like?

Skull. How can you have The Punisher without his trademark skull t-shirt? Both The Punisher and Punisher: War Zone, for whatever you think of them, at least Punisher was recognizable as The Punisher and not just some loony with guns, as he appears to be here. Who in the bloody blue hell took away the skull t-shirt and what was the reasoning behind it? It is really so unrealistic for a guy to be wearing a random skull t-shirt?

Rogues. Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Superman, The Flash, The X-Men, etc, all sport quite the impressive rogues gallery, but Punisher…not so much. He does have a few notable and colorful adversaries, though. I’m not saying that the mob and Yakuza aren’t formidable and intriguing, but we get so many films using them, it would have been nice to get a taste of some supervillain, instead. I think that is why I like Punisher: War Zone so much. As cheesy and over the top as it is, it doesn’t try to be a gritty detective film, but rather a violent action flick.

Say it ain’t so, Lou! Louis Gossett, Jr. is a fine actor and seeing him in this film gives one cause to pause. Why exactly is he in this? Does he owe someone involved with the making of it a favor? Is he just a fan of the character? Perhaps he needed the work? Whatever the case may be, this is a film that is beneath him. Watching the guy, you can tell he feels the same way, especially since he isn’t really given much to do. There are a couple of scenes in which he gets to shine, but that’s it. I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy having to do this film.

The Punisher was the first in 3 attempts to bring this character to the big screen and do him justice. Some have argued that while this is the worst film of the three, it does have the distinction of being the closest to the tone of the character. I’m not familiar enough with the character to argue with that, but I will say that this is not a good flick. It has its moments, but it isn’t a fun film to watch. Dolph Lundgren’s wooden acting theoretically works, as you don’t need to be the greatest actor to be Frank Castle, but he slips in and out of his accent which ruins it (Punisher is a die-hard New York guy) for me. Do I recommend this? No, but if you must watch because you want to view all 3 films, that is understandable. It is best to avoid this flick, though.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars



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