Thursday, August 16, 2012


Doug Frye, who's podcast you all should get familiar with, is one of only two people I consider worthy enough to write about something that has to do with Dolph Lundgren (John Cribbs, who's Expendables write-up should be coming eventually, is the other person). And given Doug's comic book knowledge it only makes him even MORE qualified to write about The Punisher - a lost gem from the late 80's that was ahead of it's time long before this explosion of so-called gritty/realistic comic book-based movies like; Batman Begins, Sin City or the recent Spiderman reboot.


Forget about the U.S. entering World War II being the only reason you aren’t speaking German right now—Dolph Lundgren is the reason you aren’t speaking Japanese right now. Beginning in 1989’s The Punisher, Lundgren entered a ten year war with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. He added the late Brandon Lee to his strike force in 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo, then came back to finish them in 1999’s Bridge of Dragons. I haven’t seen it, but I feel justified including it because it co-stars 1987-2002’s go-to Asian criminal mastermind, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who I assume is reprising his role from Showdown. I did minimal research to come up with this theory, but I feel confident in its eternal truth. It’s my feeling that Lundgren’s intensity of focus on defeating his enemy led to the oversight of a number of details that would have rounded out The Punisher into a masterpiece. This film is probably the first and only case of a comic book movie starring someone overqualified for the job. Dolph Lundgren is a super-rich karate champion and scientist: that’s not the Punisher—that’s Batman, which I am not entirely convinced that Lundgren is not. Just seeing his picture on the mantle scared a gang of criminals away from his home after they had broken in (Google it). Come to think of it, the way to strike fear into the heart of crime is to disguise yourself as Dolph-Lundgren-Man.

The main problem with the movie is its ludicrous cheapness. It’s so cheap that the costume department couldn’t even go to the Hot Topic in the mall to get a T-shirt with the Punisher’s signature skull logo. There were plenty of them available in 1989, even in Dolph Lundgren’s size. The casting seemed concerned more with its budget than its talent, too. The Mafia bosses were a collection of guys who should have played low-level goons at best. Jeroene Krabbe, who you might remember better as the goofy general villain from Timothy Dalton’s first doomed foray into the Bond franchise, The Living Daylights, just doesn’t work as a major villain. Especially when dressed in a freshly acid-washed denim jacket, his clothing of choice when going on a rescue mission.

Then, of course, there is the script.

Too many people know that the Punisher exists and too many people talk about it. The opening is a news broadcast about his exploits. This is one of the places where Punisher: War Zone went right, making Frank Castle the mysterious slasher in its horror film. Lou Gossett, Jr., sometimes dressed in Warren Beatty’s lemon yellow Dick Tracy trench coat, gets too much story for the lead character’s former partner, Jake, and Jake’s new partner exists to jam exposition in with both ham-fists. Frank has an alcoholic informant, a disgraced actor named Shakes (get it?), whom he leads around by the nose with a bottle of whisky. The Punisher is captured not once, not twice, but three times through the course of the film. He does very little of the killing that watch a Punisher movie for. His toughest opponent is the Yakuza’s female, white super-ninja (because every Asian criminal organization keeps a white super-ninja around for good measure)...

The script has too many Schwarzeneggeresque one-liners for a character as harsh and stoic as Frank Castle. I wondered if it wasn’t written with Arnold in mind by the end, though he probably would have turned it down for its lack of super-heroics. And he would have done so rightly.

For all of its flaws, though, the central plotline of the film is genius: Frank Castle hates the Mafia for gunning down his wife and kids, the Yakuza kidnap the Mafia’s children to gain influence in New York’s crime scene, and the Punisher puts his hatred of the Mafia aside to save children. It’s perfectly effective and allows Castle to become something greater than a murderer of murderers, a problem with writing his character. He rarely has anything at stake—he just kills and kills and kills. He doesn’t even really care if he lives or dies since he’s only living to kill. Suddenly, there is precious life to lose. This isn’t really explored deeply enough in the script, giving too much time to tertiary characters, and Castle’s got no real internal struggle with the decision to help the Mafia thanks to someone close to him being held until he agrees to join them. It’s too easy and robs the character of pathos.

I really dug this film as a teenager, but it just doesn’t hold up today. The Punisher could have been a much more complex film about the toll one pays when dedicating oneself to vengeance, or it could have been a The Outlaw Josey Wales­-styled story of an unstoppable killing machine of a man tearing his way across New York’s criminal underground, but instead it was neither. Largely, Frank Castle is borne on the tides of criminals, held and directed at their whims, and it between those times, he kills some people. Not enough people to be interesting, nor enough interesting people to make up for the lack of body count. The Punisher of this film lives in a Hogan’s Alley of pop-up criminals waiting to be gunned down, and adding some Japanese ones doesn’t make it better, just superficially more exotic. I just wish that Dolph Lundgren had added story editor to his long list of talents when this movie was made. Then we would have seen something.

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