The Punisher (1989)
Comic book character the Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974. He played an antagonistic role and was a hit with readers, going on to team up with Spider-Man, Captain America and others during the 1970s and early 1980s with a notable run on Daredevil during Frank Miller’s tenure. It wasn’t, however, until the 1986 miniseries Circle of Blood! that he was the protagonist of his own book. Writer Steven Grant fleshed out the character, setting up his tragic backstory: Frank Castle was a Vietnam War veteran who spent a day with his family only for them to accidentally stumble across a mob hit. Castle’s wife and two children were killed while he was seriously wounded. After several months, Castle resurfaces as the Punisher and wages a one-man war against crime.
A character like the Punisher would seem ripe for cinematic treatment, especially during the ‘80s when action movies ruled the box office and movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone often played one-man army characters. In 1989, New World Pictures made the straight to video movie The Punisher starring then up and coming action movie star Dolph Lundgren. The movie is notable for not featuring the character’s trademark “skull” on his outfit and for bearing merely a passing resemblance to the source material, but I’ve always been intrigued by Lundgren’s performance.
When Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall) is released from prison, acquitted for killing Frank Castle and his family, he arrives home with his goons only to be greeted by the Punisher who picks off his henchmen one-by-one, not unlike the opening action sequence in Leon: The Professional (1994). The Punisher kills Moretti and appears to die when the mobster’s mansion blows up. Detective Jake Berkowitz (Lou Gossett, Jr.) heads up the task force dedicated to stopping the Punisher but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the vigilante killing off criminals. He’s more interested in proving that ex-cop Castle is the Punisher and reluctantly teams up with detective Samantha Leary (Nancy Everhard) to prove it.
Meanwhile, mob boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) returns home with a master plan to consolidate crime in the city and eliminate the Punisher as well. However, Japanese gangster the Yakuza led by Lady Tanaka (an inspired looney performance by Kim Miyori) challenge Franco by intercepting a large shipment of heroin in a skirmish that the Punisher breaks up.
For my money, Dolph Lundgren is my favorite Punisher. He’s a big guy with an imposing physique reminiscent of Mike Zeck’s rendition in Circle of Blood! The actor handles the fight sequences very well, doing many of his own stunts, which adds to his credibility in the role. On the acting front, I like Lundgren’s take, playing the Punisher as a ruthless vigilante doling out vengeance on criminals. He adopts a haggard, sickly pale look like the man hasn’t slept for weeks and is surviving on determination and sheer will power, driven by his obsession to kill all criminals. Lundgren’s got a deep voice with just a hint of drawl as he sometimes drags out words – perhaps due to exhaustion.
Unfortunately, the villains are a generic lot and fans rightly criticized the missed opportunity of not using one of the Punisher’s signature baddies, like Jigsaw or the Kingpin. It’s not that the choice of Italian mobsters and the Yakuza are a bad one per se; it’s just that the actors playing them are so colorless. Most surprisingly, Jeroen Krabbe is wasted as the mob boss who appears early on with the promise of some deliciously low-key villainy only to disappear for most of the movie until the last third, just in time for the exciting climax.
A lot of fans griped about the missing skull on the Punisher’s outfit in the movie, but it is pretty obvious why they didn’t include it. Having a big white skull emblazoned on his chest would’ve made him a big target and the filmmakers wisely opted for all-black attire that looks cool in its own right. I do like the choice of making the Punisher’s base of operations in the city sewers, its network of tunnels allowing him to evade detection while also providing the opportunity to pop up in key spots and then disappear before the police can arrest him.
At times, The Punisher resembles a slightly expensive made-for-television movie thanks to New World’s trademark low budget and supporting cast playing laughably bad, anonymous gangsters. The cheap look of the movie actually works in its favor, giving it an appropriately seedy vibe. The action sequences are fairly well done in a no frills, meat and potatoes kind of way with Lundgren looking cool as he takes out countless bad guys. The movie does redeem itself in these moments, especially with an impressively staged finale as Franco and the Punisher stage an all-out assault on the Yakuza headquarters, which allows Lundgren to cut loose and really show off some excellent action chops.
In the mid to late 1980s, New World Pictures tried to develop movies based on Marvel characters without really understanding them. Boaz Yakin was a 21-year-old New York University graduate who contacted the company and set up a meeting with an executive. He pitched a Punisher movie and realized that the executive “didn’t know what the fuck the Punisher was.” Yakin wrote the script in ten days, “basically off my own ideas,” including “a sort of Frank Miller Punisher from the Daredevil comics sort of mixed with that first series, the Mike Zeck series.”
Director Mark Goldblatt claimed that the script had “many problems” and he rewrote it with producer Mark Kamen, but Yakin claims that they did not change that much. He fought against the changes made to his script and was fired by the producers for being “uncooperative.” For example, in his original draft, Yakin had the Punisher spray-paint the skull onto his t-shirt. This notion was rejected and changed to having him spray-paint the skull on a Kevlar vest before the climactic battle. Kamen rejected this as being “too comic-booky,” according to Yakin.
Kamen wanted to have authentic looking fight scenes and was drawn to Dolph Lundgren’s “sheer physicality” and the way he looked in Rocky IV (1985) and approached him for the title role. Lundgren was initially hesitant about doing the movie because he thought it was the “same action-oriented films that I had been doing to this point.” He read the script and felt that the story was good, there were some humorous moments and “many scenes of real dramatic potential,” and decided to do it. He also liked the idea of “playing a character who really doesn’t care about anything except getting revenge,” and having a clear reason for why he is the Punisher.
To prepare for the physical demands of the role, Lundgren stopped weightlifting and concentrated on martial arts and running, dropping 25 pounds. He said, “Frank Castle is a guy who has been living in the sewers for five years. He could not look too healthy and be believable.” To get into the character’s headspace, Lundgren stayed by himself and walked around talking to himself and no one else. He continued to do this during filming, which scared some people. It didn’t hurt that he worked 12-hour days for three months, which helped him “stay insane.” In addition, the script was written in a way that “called for me to have an intense, yet detached attitude.”
Lundgren claimed to have performed 95% of his own stunts, mostly out of boredom and a short temper. For example, in a scene where the Punisher falls off of a 40-foot building, his stunt double was supposed to do it, but the actor was angry about something and decided to do it himself, instantly regretting the decision once he got up there. Further authenticity was achieved by having trained fighters do their own stunts as opposed to training the stuntmen to fight as is usually done. To this end, for Lady Tanaka’s bodyguards, Lundgren brought in two fighters from his old karate school in Tokyo. The two men didn’t understand that they were making a movie and thought they had to fight for real. They had a Japanese code of honor where if they didn’t perform well enough it would reflect badly on them. To perform well meant beating Lundgren up “so I had to fight for real at times. The upside was that the fight scenes looked very violent,” the actor said on his official website.
As an adaptation of the comic book, The Punisher is a failure. It’s a by-the-numbers action movie with occasional flourishes of style, a poorly-written script, and Sydney, Australia doing a bad job of standing in for a generic big American city. Most disappointingly, it squanders a solid performance by Lundgren who looks the part and manages to capture the spirit of the character in a way that Thomas Jane in The Punisher (2004) and Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone (2008) did not. That being said, out of the three movies, the 1989 version is the least faithful and badly made, the 2004 reboot is the most faithful, drawing upon several issues of the comic book, and the 2008 incarnation is the most violent with a memorable bad guy from the source material in Jigsaw. There are elements in all three movies that if combined would probably make the definitive Punisher movie, but for now we’ll have to see what Marvel Studios does with the character now that they have regained the rights to him.
“Dolph Lundgren Brings Comics’ Most Popular Hero to the Screen.” Inside Karate. August 1989.
Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. HarperCollins. 2012.
Shapiro, Marc. “The Punisher Film Journal Entries.” Comics Scene. Summer 1989.
Topel, Fred. “Action-Packed: Boaz Yakin on Safe and Batman Beyond.” Crave Online. April 23, 2012.
Yakin, Boaz. “Boaz Yakin on The Punisher.” Comics Scene.