BE KIND REWIND THEATER – Lundgren’s ‘Punisher’ Better Than You’d Think
Published on July 8th, 2017 | Updated on March 5th, 2018 | By FanFest
Ladies and gentlemen, be sure to hit the head now. Zap a couple bags of popcorn in the microwave, grab some candy, and don’t forget your beverages. Power on your television and switch on your VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It’s time to travel back to revisit movies you’ve heard of, maybe even some you’ve just given no mind to watch at all. It’s time for Be Kind Rewind Theater!
What, you thought I would be talking about Spider-Man to be timely with the wallcrawler’s long-ballyhooed swinging back home to Marvel? Uh uh, no sir. Ma’am. Whatever. Not today. Sure, Spider-Man may be on my Mount Rushmore of Marvel Comics characters, but there’s one dark hombre that sits just off to the left side of the mountain. No, not Captain America. He shares the center with Spider-Man. No, that would be Frank Castle – The Punisher. And his property is one that has been up for multiple interpretations over the last 13 years, just a bit younger than Spider-Man’s franchise but with installments that have split fans down the center even more than Raimi and Webb’s Sony films.
Thomas Jane had his crack as the Punisher in 2004. Great interpretation of the character in a movie that tried to bring the Steve Dillon comic to life but was drowned by a boring script and the vibrant sunny shores of Tampa, Florida. (I mean, Tampa? Really? Is Castle a retiree cruising on a Hoveround?) Ray Stevenson had his shot in 2008 in a soft reboot ripe with the penchant violence Castle is apt for but just too utterly depressing and mundane to rally behind at the end of the day. And Bernthal, well, his version of Castle is just about spot on. (C’mon November, my body is ready for the Netflix series!) But before all of these fellas had their shot at the title, Dolph Lundgren tried his hand at the role first. Not only that, but also in the first Marvel Comics movie.
Today, I present to the other comic book movie of 1989. No, not Tim Burton’s Batman. That’s one of the seminal comic book films ever made. No, silly fans – I mean Mark Goldblatt’s The Punisher!
The Punisher (1989)
Directed by Mark Goldblatt
Written by Boaz Yakin (rewrites by Robert Mark Kamen)
Starring Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbe, and Kim Miyori
Back in 1987, when Marvel first hit their money woes, their parent company Marvel Entertainment Group found themselves bought out by New World Entertainment. Once a movie studio founded by the great Roger Corman (who sold the company to investors in 1983), New World didn’t just want a moneymaker in Marvel’s publication business. They saw film properties. Television shows. Cartoons. New World was already heavily invested in television productions like Santa Barbara and The Wonder Years and wanted to expand even further. At the time, the rights to Spider-Man were off with Cannon Films with a film stuck in production hell. One plucky screenwriter somehow hurdled over the rest and caught the eye of producers – a script based on the adventures of Frank Castle, The Punisher.
Boaz Yakin was a young and hungry screenwriter in the late 1980’s and had yet to make a splash. Though he’s known for Remember The Titans, I’ll always look at him at the madman who wrote and directed 2013’s Safe, arguably one of Jason Statham’s most fun and action-packed flicks. Yakin was a fan of the character, sorely in need of a reinvention for the modern day. Castle was originally envisioned as a Vietnam War vet whose family was butchered in broad daylight by warring Mafia families. Yakin’s initial script was more in tone with the comic books of the late 1980’s – a vigilante laying waste to the scum of the world, tormented and haunted by the death of his family. The script was quite violent and thematically dark. His script found its way to New World Entertainment, where producer Robert Mark Kamen became interested. Kamen is now known for his tight association with Luc Besson (a resume far too impressive to go into), as well as writing Lethal Weapon 3 and Taken. Kamen wanted in.
Of course, there were troubles for the get-go. Yakin envisioned a film that didn’t assume audiences knew who Frank Castle was. The Punisher didn’t ride around dressed like an extra from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and actually wore a tee shirt bearing the iconic skull. Kamen hired skilled editor Mark Goldblatt, fresh off the action comedy Dead Heat (which you should avoid at all costs) for New World, to direct the big screen adaptation. Goldblatt had edited a slew of movies modeled after action junkies’ wet dreams, 1985’s Commando being the most absolutely crazed – so Goldblatt had an eye for anarchic action. However, Kamen and Goldblatt weren’t fully in love with Yakin’s true-to-source script. Kamen rewrote the beginning and the ending, drawing ire from the young hotshot writer. Yakin was fired from production by Kamen promptly, leading to a public spat between Yakin and Goldblatt/Kamen that sprawled across interviews around the world. (To be honest, Yakin’s got a point in a fan letter he wrote to Comics Scene in summer 1989. His script was spot on.) Production rolled on and Yakin moved on to script the 1990 Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen thrill ride The Rookie.
Armed with just a $11 million budget – in comparison, Burton’s Batman had a $125 million budget – production opted for the tax breaks that Australia had to offer. Now, if you know anything about Australia, it’s that Sydney looks nothing like New York City at all. Sydney can stand in easily for, say, Los Angeles but there isn’t one street that looks like Manhattan, the Bronx, even Harlem. For most of the movie you don’t even pay much mind to the fact that the city streets are too wide, too bright, too cheery to be New York. But there are moments that scream “Ozploitation” right at your face. (That’s movie slang for Australian exploitation film.) One chase sequence, Castle escaping a horde of mustached nobodies in a nondescript bus, looks shot in a rural neighborhood in Georgia. However, the most painful is the tightly-wound shootout at “Coney Island,” which was actually Sydney Harbour Luna Park. Yes, the production tried to do a sequence set at the famed amusement park. And while the mayhem that Castle unleashes gets two thumbs up, whoever scouted the location needs a smack upside his head with a crowbar.
While The Punisher may not have the locations down pat, the film at least excels in the thrills. Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters (though calling Marvel’s first movie that term is way big of a stretch), the stunt choreography actually wasn’t planned at all. Sure, some of the bigger stunts with pyrotechnics had been mapped out, but I’m referring to the fisticuffs. Rather than go with ballet theatrics with the combat, the stunt team actually improvised the hand-to-hand heroics, with the actors and stunt performers actually maintaining light contact to give an air of realism. The performers just went with the flow of the scene so, instead of watching a scene and feeling like you know where the next punch will land, you’re left guessing who has the upper hand in a fight. And boy, though the blood flow isn’t like what we see in most action films now (here’s looking at you The Expendables), there are some juicy scenes that do surprise you. Knives thunk into dispensable foes, bodies rebound hard into crates (echoes of Jim Ross yelling BY GAWD HE’S BROKEN IN HALF in my ears). And there’s plenty of bullets to go round too. Sure, the 2004 reboot made Castle seem like he stalked the shadows after his prey and the 2008 soft reboot was bullet porn, really one of the redeemable values of that movie, but the 1989 original strikes the right balance.
Thomas Jane may have been an excellent Frank Castle, Ray Stevenson the stoic and cold Punisher, and Bernthal the perfect match – Lundgren outshines his big screen rivals not just in achieving the muscular appearance of Castle, but the take-no-names badass we followed in our childhoods. Sure, Thomas Jane had the physical part down pat after going on an intense training regimen to gain muscle and look lean (Stevenson’s just a tall glass of water to begin with), but Castle isn’t obsessed with muscles at all. Lundgren, who had been heavy into weightlifting to beef up for various roles, instead invested in cardio training and dieting in line when he was an international karate champion. (Dolph, is there nothing you haven’t achieved in this life?!) On top of that, to look as pale and world-worn as a Punisher inhabiting the sewers of New York, Lundgren also deprived himself of sleep, easily achieving the baggy-eyed look without needing make-up.
Lundgren doesn’t growl out his lines or just roll with the punches. He has the same focused intensity of his comic book counterpart, with the occasional one-liner that’s not overly hammy, and swatting stereotypical suits away with a fluidity that doesn’t feel jilted. Sure is a shame that Lundgren got stuck with this turkey of a movie but, in hindsight, he ends up becoming the model Punisher that other actors have striven to portray on the small-and-big screen. The big man’s interpretation of The Punisher served as the archetype for the comic book for years to come, until Steve Dillon came along in the Marvel Knights run, and Lundgren’s performance carries the 1989 movie the whole way from start to finish, his mastered karate skills creating a sense of realism in the final assault on the Yakuza stronghold. Sure, Dolph may catch heat for some of his roles in the last couple of decades, but The Punisher is a positive mark on his record.
Moreover, this would be the first time that any big screen adaptation would go on to reinvent a character’s backstory. Gone is the war-torn Vietnam vet scarred by the horrors of war but humbled by the sight of his loving family. Instead, Castle is now a honorable NYPD detective, devoted to the job and virtuous in his love for the law. While other films would go on to change origin stories as the years passed by, Boaz Yakin did it first and maybe the smartest. Castle isn’t stripped of his sense of purpose and close-to-heart morality, a trait plucked from him as the Mob fashions revenge. Instead of getting trapped in the crossfire of two Mafia families, Castle’s family is killed by a car bomb in their own driveway. The same sense of emotion is evoked as Castle helplessly watches his wife and children die in the fire, more an effigy of burning one’s heart inside of their body. Sure, initially the original 15-minute prologue introduced audiences to Castle as a cop and the series of events that paved the way to his murderous vendetta. Personally, the imagery of Castle clutching his family at a picnic is more memorable than a callous bombing but The Punisher is born the same regardless.
And while we’ve become accustomed to most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies this days imbued with familiar faces, the very first Marvel movie had none of that at all. Not only are the characters utterly generic Yakuza and La Cosa Nostra types, but they’re not very well done. The Mafia families loathe the Yakuza and vice versa. Yakuza kidnaps all of the children as ransom to gain the upper hand in New Sydney, err, York. Kim Miyori is an excellent foil as Lady Tanaka, saddled by a generic archetype but chewing the scenery enough to make an excellent villain for Castle. Though severely miscast, Jeroen Krabbe does an alright job as the lead Mob don Gianni Franco (so generic a name that his goon squad is as greasy as a Sicilian pie), but is as cookie cutter as expected and just squints at the screen, his paycheck doing the work for him. Krabbe has had much better work, and was just coming off The Living Daylights to do…this. Yeah, I’d be a smidge upset too. We’ll however never know the true chemistry Lundgren could have had with Louis Gossett Jr., portraying Castle’s former partner Jake Berkowitz who is as certain as water in a lake Castle is alive. Initially, Yakin’s script had a more Riggs and Murtaugh vibe between Castle and Berkowitz but, since Robert Mark Kamen wasn’t happy, that lively bond among brothers was ousted from the final cut.
Astoundingly, the 1989 Dolph Lundgren movie stands way above what Jonathan Hensleigh and Lexi Alexander both attempted to wow audiences with last decade and I don’t mean by a few feet in one-legged running contest. No, I mean by miles. Sure, the stereotypes are comically bad, the forced accents too. The stand-in spots for New York are painful at times to compare to the real deal. But to be Marvel’s very first live action movie, Mark Goldblatt’s film holds its ground well. Yeah, the dialogue is cheesy at times, and Frank living in a sewer and communing naked with God is a bit strange, but Dolph Lundgren and the unrelenting action buoy the worst parts of The Punisher. The authenticity of the brawls, with the appearance that the punches and kicks are actually making an impact, adds to the slam-bang fireworks of the action sequences. Factor in Mark Goldblatt’s wild style, zooming in on knives and arrows being thrust in-air with a comic-booky flair, and you’ve got a more entertaining movie than you’d expect from a flick never released theatrically in the United States. (Well, that’s because New World Entertainment started to go under but…hey…no fault of Marvel!)
The Punisher sure beats the snot out of most direct-to-video features these days, hell, even some summer tentpoles. What’s one sitting going to do, make you feel dumb? Pfft. Just do it already. Though you can easily find a poor DVD rip online, why not get the special edition that contains not only the original movie in high definition – but also director Mark Goldblatt’s workprint with the original beginning and ending? Then go here and enjoy the gooiest cheese you can get your hands on! And please remember to rewind – or we’ll have to revoke your membership. Until next time Fan Fest fam you keep reading them and I’ll keep writing them!
Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel,
cult 80’s and 90’s television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and…holy overload. He’s still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a blue police box.