"A Work in Progress: The Punisher (1989)"

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

With the abject failure of Howard the Duck in 1986, the future of Marvel properties on film was not looking good. It was bad enough that Marvel hadn't been able to parlay moderate television success into a feature film after nearly ten years, but to have the first attempt be a cult character and a box-office/critical disaster, had to be discouraging.

The most popular comic book properties to actually succeed by 1989 were both DC characters, and not just any characters, but their flagship characters. Superman started strong in 1978 and followed up even stronger in 1980. However, after that there was a creative drought that is legendary to this day. One could say that the only positive thing about Superman III (1983) was that it provided a plot point for the hilarious comedy Office Space sixteen years later.

And the less said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the better.

Then, in 1989, DC and Warner Bros. released Tim Burton's camp/gothic Batman and suddenly comic book films were hot again. Sure, it wouldn't be long before that franchise self-destructed, too, but for a few years some interesting pictures were being made.

It was during this moment in time that Marvel came out swinging once more. The late-Eighties was a strange time at Marvel Comics, with a bizarre mix of overly gritty super hero remixes and outlandish concepts that are still hard to take seriously. There were some gems released during that time, though.

And this was the beginning of what would become a frenzy of activity for an unlikely superstar: Frank Castle, The Punisher.

The character had been around since the Seventies, and had begun as a riff on Mack Bolan, The Executioner and the film Death Wish (1974). In fact, Death Wish spawned a number of sequels throughout the Eighties and it's these films, along with the Dirty Harry films, that really establish the tone of what the 1989 Punisher film tries to accomplish.

If only they had an actor of Charles Bronson's or Clint Eastwood's quality.

Instead, the gigantic Swedish "action star," Dolph Lundgren was tapped for the title role. And at first glance, this isn't that bad a choice. I mean, for all its faults, Masters of the Universe (1987) was an entertaining film, particularly if you're a fan of Jack Kirby (the sheer number of Kirby concepts littering that film is amazing, and would make for a satisfying drinking game).

However, even though Lundgren had played He-Man, his acting wasn't really what anyone was talking about. In fact, he was probably still best known for playing gigantic, one-note, monotone Russian boxer, Ivan Drago in Rocky IV (and for being Grace Jones' boy toy).

The rest of the main cast is more experienced and does a serviceable job making Lundgren look as good as possible.

Louis Gossett, Jr. co-stars as Frank's old partner, police officer Jake Berkowitz, and as usual, he delivers a likeable and solid performance. Although, to be honest, given the material he has to work with, this is more on the Jaws 3-D end of his performance level than on the Roots or Enemy Mine end.

Jeroen Krabbe plays one of the villains of the piece, Gianni Franco, and does a fine job with the role. He gives the character an emotional center that helps to make him sympathetic without taking away from the fact that he's a murderous ganglord.

Finally, Kim Miyori plays Lady Tanaka, the leader of the Yakuza and the second most dangerous villain in the film (followed only by her adopted American daughter, played by Zoshka Mizak). She was already a veteran of American television and was still working steadily as late as 2007. Her character is one of the bright spots in this film.

The screenplay was written by Boaz Yakin, a first-time screenwriter who went on to write a couple of decent films over the years (his latest, Prince of Persia hits the screens this year), and the initial script (which can be found online with some diligent searching) isn't bad. However, there were some apparent conflicts with producer Robert Kamen which, according to rumor, led to Yakin being fired and the script being rewritten. This meant that some elements directly inspired by the comics were removed, like the skull on Frank's chest. According to other sources, the producers only had a "limited license" which restricted how close they could make it to the source materials.

It doesn't really matter one way or the other, though.

There hadn't been a Marvel Movie that stuck to the source material to this point, so why start now? What made a Marvel Movie work was how the spirit of the character was interpreted on the screen. That's what made most of the television films at least somewhat successful despite obvious budgetary and talent limitations. That's also where this film really shines.

Although "shines" is probably the wrong word.

For the director, the producers gave veteran film-editor Mark Goldblatt a shot. This seems like a no-brainer, really. Goldblatt had edited The Howling and The Terminator (as well as bad, but entertaining, films like Piranha, Humanoids From the Deep, Enter the Ninja, and Halloween II). Without question, the man knows how to cut a film. He went on to edit Rambo: First Blood Part II, Terminator 2, Starship Troopers, and more.

Unfortunately, his mad skills as an editor didn't really translate into directorial abilities, even with his experience as a second-unit director on Robocop (1987).

So when we combine a new director, a re-written script, and a weak lead actor, we get one of the more disappointing comics-to-film adaptations ever. Although, I would argue that in retrospect, this film really is the forerunner to the highly successful Blade (1998) and many elements of the narrative structure are re-visited in 2008's Punisher: War Zone.

For instance, The Punisher doesn't mess around with lightening the tone, and instead goes for an "R" rating. There's nothing sanitized about this version of the character. The cheesy opening credits sequence sets the stage. We get images of sleeze and corruption balanced out by shots of Lundgren firing his huge machine gun. There's your film, right there.

All in all, over 100 people are killed in this film. It's a blood-bath. Which is exactly what a Punisher film should be. In fact, the quality of this film is pretty much on par with the majority of low-budget action films of the time. It's at least as good as half of the Chuck Norris films of the Eighties, and those Death Wish films went downhill quick after the first one.

But, as I was saying, as with Blade and Punisher: War Zone, and in direct contrast to every Marvel Movie to this point, we don't start with an origin. This is not an origin story at all.

Frank has been killing mobsters for five years when the film opens (when confronted later, Frank is asked what he calls 125 murders in five years - his response, "a work in progress"), and the mob boss, Dino Moretti, behind the death of his family has just been acquitted and is set free. He returns home only to find Frank there waiting. After violently killing all of his security guards, Frank then sets off a number of explosive devices, blowing out all of the windows and setting the mansion on fire, then tosses the boss out the front door with a knife stuck in his back. As the gathered camera crews roll, Frank then blows the house up completely, before disappearing into the sewers.

We get a brief flashback of Frank's family being murdered. Instead of stumbling across a crime scene and being killed as they were in the comics, this is retribution killing from Frank's days as a cop. His family are killed in a car bomb, and from that point on, Frank starts living in the sewers, calling himself The Punisher, and riding around at night on a huge motorcycle, killing bad guys.

It seems Frank's old partner, Jake, is the only person who believes that Frank isn't dead and is actually The Punisher. Well, Jake and the new girl, Sam, who wants to be his new partner. Her only real function in the film is to provide a fresh set of eyes for Jake, and to be the audience's point of view, coming into the story already in progress.

Anyway, after five years of Punisher action, all of the gang bosses are weak, and the new boss, Gianni Franco has a plan for teaming up and consolidating their strength. Unfortunately, he's not the only one realizing that the bosses are weak, as on the night of the arrival of their first huge drug shipment, The Yakuza show up, kill everyone, and steal the drugs.

They nearly kill Frank, too, who was there to kill everyone and destroy the drugs.

It's a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

I like the fact that the plot then takes a nice twist, as when the Mob Bosses refuse to cooperate with the Yakuza, the Yakuza steal all of their children, holding them for ransom, but planning to sell them all into slavery, regardless of whether or not the ransoms are paid. It's actually one of the few times I appreciated a "save the children" sub-plot, as it really does set up a situation where there are no real good guys, Frank included.

Sure, he saves the kids, but only because he's haunted by his own kids' deaths. It's not because he's a good guy, as we see by the end of the film.

Franco and the Mob Bosses are clearly bad guys, but the Yakuza show up and Lady Tanaka is more evil than anyone in the room. There's a nice shift in tone, where the Mobsters actually seem a little more like cartoons compared to the ruthlessness of the Yakuza.

It doesn't hurt the comparison when the Mobsters are actually written as stereotypes and cartoons in the first place, too.

I guess, what I'm saying is that the bones of this story are good, and without the interference of the producers, I have a feeling that this could have been a good movie. Instead it's hampered by bad writing, the compulsive need to insert cheesy one-liners, a couple of characters who just needed to be either entirely re-thought or just cut from the project (yes, I'm looking at you New Partner and you Drunken Homeless Shakespearean Actor).

But even though it's not an objectively good film, in the context of its genre it's a perfect satisfactory accomplishment. But that genre is not the comic book film. The genre is revenge thriller.

And that's where The Punisher should be. There are no over-stylized set designs. There's really not much in the film that tries to move out of the gritty and brutal company of Death Wish or Dirty Harry. In fact, if they could have afforded a director like Don Siegel or even Michael Winner, this could have been turned around pretty easily.

I put the failure on this film entirely on the shoulders of a weak director and the producers who decided to film in Australia to save money, and tinkered with the script, removing anything that was too much like the comic books. I don't think they respected the source materials enough to trust that it could work.

A better actor as Frank wouldn't have hurt, either, though.

This is nowhere more apparent than at the conclusion of the film.

Frank has been forced to team-up with Franco to rescue Franco's son from Lady Tanaka and her daughter. And in the course of getting into the Yakuza headquarters, we get my favorite scene of the film.

Frank and Franco step off of the elevator and are confronted by a roomful of Yakuza henchmen in their full Kendo outfits. The Yakuza begin to attack. Frank and Franco raise their machine guns and mow them all down. All of them. The scene seems to go on for minutes, ending only when an entire roomful of people are dead.

That's the freaking Punisher, right there.

This leads to a sequence that with a better director could have been a showpiece for the film. As they sneak into the Yakuza headquarters, they blow the power, causing the emergency lights to kick in. This bathes most of the final twenty minutes of the film in a red filter, similar to the "House of Blue Leaves" sequence in Kill Bill.

Unfortunately, this scene is filmed in the same unimaginative, straight-forward style as the rest of the film. Just a little bit of flair could have made this something really special. As it is, we still get a very realistic fight between Frank and two Yakuza guards, allowing Lundgren to show off his third degree black belt skills.

We also have a very physical and brutal fight between Frank and Tanaka's daughter. As I said earlier, the film establishes just how threatening she is early on, as she repeatedly kills without mercy and clearly outclasses anyone she faces in battle. The fight with Frank is serious. There are no quips and no exaggerated styles. You can really believe that she's trying to kill him, and finally, in order to win, he ends up throttling her while she tries to slice him up with the blades imbedded in her shoes. Then he snaps her neck.

It's unsettling and effective. That's what a Punisher movie should aspire to.

Lady Tanaka is killed more efficiently, but just as disturbingly, in front of Franco and his son. Then we get the most brutal part. Frank is hurt and Franco turns on him. He ushers his son out of the room so he won't see it, and then begins beating and kicking Frank in another realistic fight. Little Tommy busts back in and tries to stop his father from killing the scary man who saved his life, only to see his father shot dead by Frank.

The boy grabs the gun and points it at Frank, saying, "I'm gonna kill you!"

And this is the moment when Lundgren actually puts something effective into his performance. He turns to Tommy and says, "Good. Maybe if you get it over with now, you won't grow up to be like him."

He then gets down on his knees in front of Tommy, pulls the gun up so it's aimed at his own forehead and begins urging the boy to pull the trigger.

"C'mon. Do it. Do it. Do it."

Tommy breaks down crying and Frank stands up to leave. But before he goes, he says, "You're a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. Because if you're not... I'll be waiting."

And then he disappears into the night, having seriously messed this kid up for life. Which is exactly what the Punisher would do.

If the violence of this conclusion was too much for you then you shouldn't be watching a Punisher film. If the rest of the film had the intensity and determination (and the acting) that these final minutes did, no one would be putting it on any worst film lists.

Hell, it might have gotten an American theatrical release.

Even with Frank's awful, painted-on five o'clock shadow.

As it is, it's an effective revenge film that fits securely into the late-Eighties vigilante-action genre. Like many of those films, it is marred by poor direction, a lack of money, and uneven acting. Unlike all of the Marvel Movies up to this point, it doesn't try to undermine its material by trying to appeal to a broader audience. This film makes no apologies and earns its "R" rating.

I'll discuss this at a later date, but this may be the most effective of the three Punisher films that have been made. It out guns the 2004 version and takes itself more seriously than 2008's Punisher: War Zone. If only there was a lab somewhere, where all three films could be chopped up and remixed, bringing out the best in all of them and cutting out all the crap. We might have one good film, then.

Community Discussion