Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Film Appreciation - The Guilty Will Be Punished

Showing Film Appreciation for The Punisher (1989) is all in a day's work for Cody Hamman.

Forty-two years ago, February of 1974, Marvel Comics character The Punisher made his first appearance in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129. Although the mentally and emotionally tormented trigger happy vigilante was well liked by readers, he didn't get his own series until 1986, giving the character a huge surge in popularity just as I was reaching comic book reader age. I was always fascinated by this kevlar-wearing antihero who would gun down bad guys left and right, I enjoyed it when he would show up in books I collected and I picked up several issues of his solo books. The Punisher was one of my favorites, and not too long after he got his own series and I became a fan, the character got his own movie.

The fact that The Punisher's movie got made in 1989 was quite an accomplishment. Despite the fact that Marvel was owned by the film production company New World Entertainment at the time, Marvel movies were not being made. The ones that were attempted tended to get stuck in development hell. The Punisher beat most of Marvel's biggest characters to the feature world by more than a decade. Things didn't go perfectly - New World ran into some financial troubles that caused the film to be delayed for a while, and it wasn't well received when it did come out. But The Punisher got his movie, and it's one that I have always liked.

The Punisher 1989 came from the creative team of director Mark Goldblatt, screenwriter Boaz Yakin, and producer Robert Mark Kamen. Having edited Piranha, The Howling, Halloween II, The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Commando, Goldblatt was the second unit director on RoboCop and then directed the Treat Williams/Joe Piscopo action/horror/comedy Dead Heat. The Punisher was his second feature, and his last. Aside from an episode of Eerie, Indiana, he stuck with editing after this. Yakin  would go on to work on such films as The Rookie with Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen, From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money, and Now You See Me. Kamen was best known for writing the Karate Kid movies at the time, and would go on to have a prolific and successful collaboration with filmmaker Luc Besson. Kamen did some revisions to Yakin's script, including adding an origin story flashback opening sequence that ended up being cut anyway.

The origin of The Punisher, whose real name is Frank Castle, was altered a bit for the film. In the comics, he's a former Marine, a Vietnam veteran whose wife and two children were killed when the family came across a mob execution while in Central Park. To avenge his family, Castle uses his military training to wage a one man war against crime. In the film, Castle was a police officer whose wife and two children were killed in a car bombing perpetrated by the mobsters he was investigating. It's different, but it leads to the same outcome, and thankfully not much of the running time is spent on the details, especially with Kamen's opening having wisely been excised.

As the finished film begins, Castle has already been operating as The Punisher for five years, and has racked up more than 125 kills. He is presumed to have been killed in the car bombing with his family, but his former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) suspects that Castle is alive and is The Punisher.

Since Castle wasn't a cop in the comics, Jake Berkowitz didn't exist there, but Gossett Jr. does a good job giving this character some depth and making him entertaining to watch. The Punisher is very stoic, so it's through Berkowitz that we learn more about the man he used to be, and it's through Berkowitz's interaction with fellow officer Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard) that this exposition is delivered. Leary's a rather minor character, but likeable. She knows computers in '89, she's ahead of her time. Berkowitz thinks the only thing a computer is good for is playing Ms. Pacman.

When Dino Moretti, head of the Franco crime family and the man accused of killing the Castles, is acquitted and released from police custody, The Punisher is waiting for him at his mansion. He kills Dino, his buddies and bodyguards, and blows the place up... All with a crowd of reporters standing right outside. The budget is low, the way this sequence is executed might not blow you away, but this is pure Punisher.

Dino's death puts the Franco family business in the hands of Gianni Franco, who is played by Jeroen Krabbé, just a couple years removed from being a villain in the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights. Gianni's plan to deal with The Punisher is much like how Cyrus planned to take on the cops in The Warriors, just in the world of organized crime instead of street gangs: the different crime families in the city need to set aside their differences, forget about territory, and consolidate.

Gianni's plan has only just been put into action when the Japanese Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her mute adoptive daughter (Zoshka Mizak), shows up on the scene and performs a hostile takeover. To force the mob families to give in to her terms - which include her taking 75% of their profits - she has their children kidnapped.

Now, The Punisher would gladly kill the fathers of every one of these kids without hesitation or remorse, but he can't condone the harm of children. Tipped off to the situation by his man on the street, an alcoholic down-on-his-luck Shakespearean actor called Shake (Barry Otto), who will lapse into rhyming his words whenever possible, The Punisher sets out to rescue the children... Even though that means having to form a tenuous alliance with Gianni, whose young son Tommy (Brian Rooney) is among the Yakuza's captives.

Given that their deal was sealed with Castle saying "When this is over, you're dead", it's pretty clear that he and Gianni could turn on each other at any second, but they need each other's help to get through Lady Tanaka's army of guards, won-over mobsters, and ninjas.

Yes, this movie not only features The Punisher wiping out the usual mafia/Yakuza types, but also going head-to-head with ninjas. Ninjas who use swords and Uzis. This movie's action sequences are somewhat when revisited today, but they certainly contain some awesome elements.

One problem I had with this film when I was first watching it as a child is the fact that The Punisher doesn't wear the outfit that he does in the comic books, with that iconic white skull image on the front of his shirt. His throwing knives have skulls on the handles, but why would they keep the skull off his shirt? It's nothing to be ashamed of, it's his trademark and it's badass. I've come to accept the fact that it was excluded, but I still wish it was there.

Dolph Lundgren plays The Punisher/Frank Castle, and I feel that he did a decent job bringing the character to life. There really isn't all that much required of him, he just needs to look brooding, deliver monosyllabic lines in a deep voice, and look cool dispatching enemies. He manages all of that... although maybe The Punisher shouldn't make the duck lips face that Lundgren sometimes does when firing a machine gun.

As the years have gone by and the lack of the skull has bothered me less, The Punisher 1989 is actually a movie I've grown to like and appreciate more and more. It has its shortcomings, but overall it's a fun action flick and it satisfies me as an adaptation of that era of the Punisher. This feels like a live action representation of Punisher comic books I read as a child, just minus the skull and plus a police officer background. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But it could have been a lot worse.

I really would have liked to have seen this become a franchise with Dolph Lundgren in the lead. Although, as with Masters of the Universe, Lundgren apparently wasn't interested in returning for a sequel even if one had gotten off the ground. So an early '90s Punisher 2 where Lundgren dons the skull will have to only exist in my imagination as I continue to enjoy the one Lundgren Punisher we do have. One of the few live action Marvel adaptations that were available to watch when I was a kid.

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