In 1989 a small little film came out entitled The Punisher. Yes, it was based on the Marvel character of the same name, but back then superhero movies weren’t what they are now. Back then things were much different. Spiderman on tv shot a rope, the Hulk was a big guy painted green, and the few movies that came out mostly stunk. Yes, stunk. See people praise Superman because it was a good wholesome film. Watch it now, it stinks. The Fantastic Four movie never ever came out it was so bad (Side note I actually enjoyed it). See back then Superhero movies were essentially laughed at, not because they were awful (In some cases they were) but it was because technology was not advance enough to make them look real like they do now. Now when the Punisher was announced that should not have been a problem. Guy’s family gets killed in the park during a mob hit gone bad, guy puts on a skull shirt, guy starts killing criminals. It’s the most basic of all plot’s and the 80’s were a ripe time to do it.
New World, which was a much smaller budget company had somehow acquired the rights to make a Punisher film. That was great news. They hired Dolph Lundgren to play the title role, also great news. And the film was going to get a hard R rating, which was exactly what fans wanted to hear. Now when the film came out people liked it, sort of, but comic book fans really hated it. I consider myself a different breed of comic fan as I am smart enough to know that us comic readers are about 2% of the audience. SO little things like a different costume, or possibly a different look in general didn’t really bother me. It still doesn’t. I mean as long as they keep the origin the same and stick to the material its all good. Sadly the Punisher missed the boat on a few things, but it got the heart and soul correct.
Now first off the vast majority of Punisher stories take place in New York. Guess what, it cost a lot of money to film there. This film had a budget of less than 10 million, so New York filing was never in the cards. But that’s ok, tons of movies set in New York are actually filmed in Canada. Well that costs money too, but luckily New World had Australian ties so the film was simply filmed in Australia. It does in now way shape of form look anything like New York. But that’s ok. Dolph Lundgren will openly tell you he had no knowledge of who the Punisher was. He was not a comic reader, but he didn’t need to be. Now the one issue I have always had with the film, and still do is that The Punisher does not wear his skull shirt. See that’s the costume. I mean back then he was drawn in a spandex outfit with the skull but they could have very easily just given him a shirt like they did in the Thomas Jane film, or even just a painted vest like in Warzone. No they simply had him wear a t shirt, jeans, leather jacket, but had him throw knives with the little skull on them for his calling card. I wont lie that was stupid.
They also changed the origin story a bit. See in the comics and most recently in the now canceled Netflix series, that got most of it correct Frank was a former soldier who when taking his family out to a picnic in Central Park watched them die during a mob hit gone bad. It caused him to snap and become the Punisher. A man who simply had a one man war against crime. If you were a criminal he killed you. Pretty basic. Well in this film Frank was a cop who was investigating the local mob. His family died in a car bombing that was meant for him. Everyone just assumed he died as well and because of this he became the Punisher. He now lives in the sewers and carries on a one man war against the mob. In fact he’s killed over 125 mobsters in the five years he has been on his crusade. He is added by a drunk washed up theater actor named Shake. I never got that part. Now his old partner Jake (Louis Gossett Jr) believes that Frank is still alive and that he’s the Punisher. In fact he’s been chasing him for the last five years.
The plot of the film is basic enough. With most of the mobsters dead because of the Punisher, mafia kingpin Gianni Franco comes to the states to unify the families in the hopes of stopping the punisher and continuing their illegal trades. Problem here is that the Yakuza decide they was the territory for themselves. Lead by Lady Tanaka they have a genius plan. Kidnap all the children of the mobsters and hold them for ransom. It’s a very good idea but the Punisher had other plans. He decides to save the kids from the Yakuza and destroy their operation as well. As the odds are stacked against him and with his former partner closing in Frank teams up with Gianni for a final assault on the Yakuza headquarters, which is a massive high rise tower.
The film is violent. Very violent. In fact it was originally heavily censored to simply get the R rating. Weather you watch the R or the uncensored you will enjoy the film as it kept the spirt of the character alive. Mob kills family, you snap, you kill criminals. That’s it its plane and simple. This is the version that does it the best (as far as the films go) to say the least. Problem was the film came out during a time, as I said, when comic book films meant nothing. Sure it got a wide release overseas, but it got nothing here. Just a VHS that came and went. Comic fans were less than impressed as the skull outfit was nowhere to be found, but action fans embraced it.
Now as the years progressed the comic fans are starting to come around. The Thomas Jane big budget Marvel film fell flat amongst comic and action fans. Sure they had the look right but they changed the origin a bit to give it more of a movie flare but the part that hurt it was really the lack of action. In fact with the exception of the fight with the Russian and a little bit of explosions at the end the film is pretty much a drama. Not saying it’s a bad film its just not a punisher film. The follow up, War Zone, suffered a bit as well. It gave the violence back and turned it way up but the villains were played so over the top they were akin to the old Batman 1966 villains. It had a nice amount of action but it just never really came together, for me at least. Now the Netflix Show so far is the best version I have seen, but that’s a story for another day.
If you have never seen the 1989 Punisher film it’s definitely a must watch. If you have seen it seek out the Umbrella Blu-ray release as it’s the nicest print out there so far. Forget the fact he’s not wearing a skull shirt, just sit back and enjoy the 80’s version of Punishment