A Second Glance: ‘The Punisher’ (1989)

Ryan Covey
Movies Comics
Movies Comics

Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at the 1989 Dolph Lundgren action film The Punisher.

Last Time on ‘A Second Glance’: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

Marvel has announced that the next new Marvel Netflix series after The Defenders will be a spin-off about Jon Bernthal’s The Punisher from the second season of Daredevil. Fans are excited despite the fact that The Punisher has been a troubled property. It has failed on three different occasions over the years, starting with 1989’s The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle. But was The Punisher a failure because it was bad or was it just overlooked?

Before Today’s Marvel-Dominated World

The Punisher two guys exit lift with guns

It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly Marvel characters became contenders on the silver screen. DC’s Batman and Superman had dominated movies and television for decades. But the point when Marvel got its foot in the door is usually acknowledged as either Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998), Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). Marvel hadn’t exactly been absent prior to 1998, but the only notable film before then was Willard Huyck’s Howard the Duck (1986). The Punisher is Marvel’s first loyal adaptation of their work, nearly a full decade before Blade would be pulled from obscurity to become a household name.

The Plot

Mafia boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) has returned to the United States to unite the various Italian families of New York into one cohesive crime empire. A mysterious vigilante known as The Punisher has greatly weakened all the families, leaving a power vacuum that many are eager to fill. On the eve of Franco’s attempt to unite the New York mob, a gang of ninja sabotage a massive heroin deal. Infamous Yakuza leader Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) has come to take advantage of the Mafia’s weakness and set herself up as the crime lord of New York City.

 with painted white face
Lady Tanaka

Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) is the NYPD’s Punisher task force. Berkowitz believes that the self-styled vigilante is actually his old partner Frank Castle, presumed dead from the car bomb that killed his family. Berkowitz’s new partner, Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard), agrees with Berkowitz’s theory and may be the help he needs to finally prove that Frank Castle and The Punisher are one and the same.

Frank Castle hides in the sewers, meditating and asking God why the innocents suffer and the guilty go unpunished. He has come to see himself as an instrument of God’s will, in taking down those wicked few that the law cannot. When Frank first learns of the war between The Yakuza and The Mafia, he’s willing to just sit back and let them kill each other. But he soon finds out from his underworld contact, Shake (Barry Otto), that Lady Tanaka has kidnapped the children of all major Mafia figures in the city and plans to sell them into slavery. So, The Punisher rides into battle against The Yakuza. Does he have what it takes to topple their criminal empire alone?

Why Does The Punisher Deserve a Second Glance?

The Punisher still holds a paltry 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When speaking of Marvel’s biggest duds of past years, the film remains a popular whipping boy, along with the aforementioned Howard the Duck and Sam Raimi’s troubled Spider-Man 3. It has been called dull, silly, emotionless, poorly made, and loosely adapted from the source material. Most commonly cited as a complaint is that Lundgren never wears The Punisher’s iconic skull symbol, although the handle of the knives he uses throughout the film features a version of the design.

While no other characters aside from Frank Castle originated from the comics, this isn’t as much of a detriment. Over the years, different writers have built their own cast of sidekicks and foils to Castle’s scowling vigilante. However, unlike most superheroes, he doesn’t have a static set of side characters and villains. Frank Castle is comfortable fighting any sort of criminal, and his more memorable villains are all a bit hokey, feeling more at home in a Dick Tracy comic than an ’80s action film.

gianni franco punisher acid wash jacket

The Punisher builds its own cast of characters and manages to flesh them out impressively. There are seven significant characters in this movie, and each has their own story arc (though much of Sam Leary’s story was left on the cutting room floor) and background.

Kim Miyori is menacing and powerful as Lady Tanaka, and Jeroen Krabbé’s Gianni Franco is a wonderful morally gray counterpoint to Frank Castle’s antihero. Barry Otto’s Shake, a drunken former actor-turned-homeless-informant and the film’s comedic relief, is humorous but his performance doesn’t descend into camp. Dolph Lundgren absolutely nails the role of The Punisher, with the character’s emotionless demeanor lending itself to Lundgren’s unnatural delivery of the English language. Each of the actors has moments of struggle where lines come across as flat or overdone, but the performances are mostly solid.

Where The Punisher Succeeds

the punisher Frank Castle by candlelight

Where The Punisher excels is in its set design. The sets are all stark and unique with each faction given their own environment. The Punisher has a labyrinthine network of cold, gray sewer tunnels. The Mafia’s settings are all white and ornamental, conveying great wealth. The Yakuza hideout features traditional Japenese decor with sliding panels. Every frame feels like a comic panel, and this adds a nice pop-art quality that never goes too surreal. The setting of the action scenes is as important as the action itself, and each setting is a massive playground for the carnage that will unfold.

The action scenes are wonderfully shot, showing a real clarity of movement and alternating fluidly between gun battles and hand-to-hand combat. Lundgren did most of his own stunts, and real martial artists performed all of the hand-to-hand combat. The combat was not choreographed, and the fighting was full-contact as many of the Japanese martial artists found stage fighting to be dishonorable. Lundgren himself resumed a training regimen from his days as a karate champion to prepare for the part. This attention to detail really makes the action pop, and The Punisher has some of the best fight scenes of any ’80s action film.

The movie moves at a brisk pace, taking off from an explosive opening and barely slowing from there.  The plot is always moving forward and only occasionally takes a breather before proceeding to the next big action set-piece. The tone is serious without going overboard and pulpy without becoming ridiculous.

Is It Worth Your Time?

Punisher 89 - 03

The Punisher is a genuinely great action movie that perfectly captures the tone of its source material and protagonist. Unfortunately, the film never has quite found its audience, and the only edition in print is a DVD so old that it lists “interactive menus” among its special features. The movie is long overdue for an HD transfer (the film is available on Blu-Ray outside of the U.S.) but for now you can find the DVD on Amazon.


Not enough Punisher action for you? Find out more about the upcoming Netflix Punisher series here.  

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