Here is justice. Here is punishment. Here, in me.
It’s ironic that for a character whose very existence is centred upon meting out his own version of justice, nobody has yet managed to do him any.Indeed, The Punisher would probably argue that it wasn’t ‘justice’ that he was interested in, but ‘punishment’, which, funnily enough, is probably what a great deal of people think about watching one or all three disparate film adaptations featuring him. Punishment. It’s understandable, in many ways, why they’ve never quite managed to get the character right. Alongside Blade, and a few other select ‘superheroes’, he remains one of the most adult incarnations in the mainstream comic universe. Unquestionably violent, he spent his nights mowing down mafia goons and other assorted bad guys and – in between – torturing his latest victims for the whereabouts of his next. And torturing them with the kind of brutal improvisational flair that would have Liam Neeson’s Taken character averting his eyes.In 2004, rebooting the character for the modern (although pre-Cinematic Universe) Marvel generation was something of a tough ask, with PG-13 sensibilities at play (c.f. Blade: Trinity which was released the same year) which left even the R-rated end result still feeling somewhat restrained. Four years later, with the previous star Thomas Jane nowhere to be seen, the character was brought back at a near straight-to-DVD level with its strangely also nowhere-to-be-seen big budget wasted on a cheap-looking interpretation that, equally strangely, was actually probably the most faithful to the original source material in terms of visceral, brutal, head-splattering violence and perhaps even in terms of representation of the lead character. Other than that though, it’s a guilty pleasure at best.
Travel back two decades though, and we land in 1989 for the first film adaptation featuring the character, as brought to life by none other than Dolph Lundgren. Critically dismissed, and commercially a massive failure, despite its abundant flaws, it’s actually quite a dark and stylish little outing, and Lundgren makes a pretty decent near-psychotic vigilante Punisher.
With licensing issues limiting the extent to which New World Pictures could use the character – most notably they were not able to use his iconic skull (and imagine if they took the bat symbol from Batman or the S-shape from Superman) – and their further financial difficulties leaving the film to be released straight-to-video in the States, The Punisher died almost as quickly as it got started. But the cast, who agreed to this low budget project shot in Australia, still committed to their comic characters, and largely did the best they could with the material.
Unable to use the iconic skull, Lundgren instead modelled a fairly convincing permanent 6 o’clock shadow which actually framed his face into a skull shape; Louis Gossett Jr, who was actually enjoying quite a popular run at the time with a hit almost every year of the 80s, made for a solid cop counterpart; and Jeroen Krabbe, who’d just come off the back of playing a Bond villain in The Living Daylights, was a fairly decent not-wholly-one-dimensional antagonist, who actually enlists the help of The Punisher to save his son from the Japanese Yakuza who are trying to muscle in on the Chicago mobsters that have been decimated by The Punisher’s one-man-war.
Sure, the supporting cast leave a lot to desire, and I have no idea why everybody in the 80s was so obsessed with using remote controlled cars in serious, adult, thrillers (c.f. Tom Sellick’s Runaway and Dirty Harry's The Dead Pool), but the film was surprisingly stylish given the period and the budget, electing to shoot key action sequences in rooms bathed entirely in red, or in blue, or in darkness, with a fantastically thematic score which is in many ways the highlight of the entire piece.
"What the f**k do you call 125 murders in 5 years?!"
"Work in progress."
And Lundgren may not have really been hired for his acting skills back then – although he’s actually a pretty smart cookie, who has gone on to make some interesting, if largely ignored, budget actioners in the last decade, and who has merely always been plagued by the ‘Arnie’ effect (tough guy + thick accent = dumb) – but he makes for a halfway decent psycho-vigilante. Far from a hero, he genuinely convinces of being a sewer-rat psychopath, who has lost everything – including most of his humanity – and now exists largely just to execute villains. Of course he also convinces on the action front, and it’s just a shame that they didn’t get to spend a little more time on The Punisher’s trademark improvised torture sequences, although they make up for it with a few nice improvised deaths instead!
It was a different era for comic book movies, and few serious outings survived unscathed – the moody atmospherics of Burton’s Batman may have heralded the 12 rating in that same year, but The Punisher did not fare as well, delivering then-BBFC-unfriendly 18-rated violence to an audience that, at the time, weren’t yet of age. Still, none of the outings with the character have quite gotten it right, so it’s hardly all the fault of this doomed-from the start production which, under the circumstances, delivered some surprisingly enjoyable results.
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