Lately Marvel Comics characters are making it to the screen with a reasonable chance of success. While the company put managed to create a successful live action version of the Hulk in the 70s, in the 80s (and after unsuccessful attempts to create similar shows for Spider-Man, Captain America and Dr. Strange) the idea of additional adaptations seemed unlikely. Then Tim Burton’s Batman hit the screens and superheroes were hot properties again. Somehow Marvel Comics got hooked up with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, of all the possible companies, and New World put cheapie versions of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The Punisher in the works. The mid-to-late 80s were a great time for the Punisher character, who started off as a Spider-Man foe in 1974 to great success, and then repeatedly appeared in guest shots and finally his own mini-series. The mini-series was a hit, so he was given his own regular series, which soon blossomed into several other series. The letters page was full of news of the coming film adaptation, which was to star Dolph Lundgren (Bridge of Dragons), fresh from his breakout role in Rocky IV (and affordable again after his first lead role, Masters of the Universe, bombed).
Fans grew excited….and then nothing. New World Pictures went into bankruptcy, and the film wasn’t released to theaters in the U.S. (though it did play abroad). The film finally made it to the U.S. video market in 1991, by which time hardcore fans weren’t interested, as the bootlegs that made it back to the States were disappointing. The Punisher is a ridiculously simple character. Originally he was a Vietnam Vet whose family stumbled into a mob hit while picnicking in Central Park. The mobsters gunned the Castles down but somehow Frank survived and swore revenge upon all criminals. Donning a bullet proof costume with a white skull on its chest, Castle used the fighting skills he learned in ‘Nam to wage guerrilla warfare on the entire underworld. The only thing really setting the Punisher apart from run-of-the-mill 70s revenge action characters was his unending mission (no easily defined group of bad guys to dispatch), his costume, and his use of heavy military weaponry (and even then he is often accused of being a rip-off of a pulp novel character, Mack Bolan, The Executioner). The Punisher is single minded in purpose; tormented by the death of his family he channels that rage into killing people like those responsible.
Somehow every film version of the Punisher thus far gets this relatively simple character wrong. The ’89 version is no exception. To make the character less fantastic (strange in a year that saw a successful Batman film) he’s given a simple all back outfit heavy on leather. Instead of the distinctive skull face on his chest, he gets skull-handled knives that he leaves as calling cards. He’s no longer a decorated war vet but a common cop. His family’s death isn’t random, but they die in a car bomb explosion meant for him. Instead of a known mass murderer at large, Castle is a mythical figure (shades of Batman). Instead of working alone or with perhaps a single arms supplier (Microchip in the comics) or maybe some old Vietnam buddies (common characters in his stories) Castle has a drunk ex-actor homeless person as his information gathering sidekick. His ex-partner Berkowitz (improbably played by Louis Gosset, Jr., Iron Eagle) is trying to find him and bring him in. The Punisher concentrates on the Mafia families involved in his family’s death and not a general war on the underworld.
On the plus side, aside from some awful stubble, Dolph is a pretty good choice to play Castle. He’s big, he can do strong and silent, his accent isn’t as bad as, say, Arnuld’s, and he’s a decent enough actor to do most of what’s asked of him here, which is mainly to kill people, brood, say some poorly written “bad ass” lines, and grumble to God about justice (which was a constant theme in the comic in the time, as the writers gave Castle a priest-who-left-in-training background). Unfortunately his scenes with Gosset are pretty bad, though to be fair even Gosset can’t do much with the lousy script. Castle is also appropriately brutal, and aside from his conversations with God doesn’t doubt his purpose (a problem in both later adaptations, but especially in the 2004 version with Thomas Jayne). The action is solid low-grade late 80s fare, and plentiful.
The plot involves Gianni Franco (Jerome Krabbe, The Living Daylights, a bit miscast as an action-oriented mob boss) returning from Europe to take over from the last Don of his family who Castle kills in the opening. Franco attempts to bring the warring families together, but his plans fall apart when the Yakuza, led by dragon lady Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori, Loverboy), muscles in, first stealing an enormous heroin shipment, then kidnapping the Dons’ kids before slaughtering the Dons when they come to pay her off. Franco is the only hold out, and enlists the Punisher’s aid to get his son back. This plot could easily have come from the series at the time (especially the rather silly Yakuza villains complete with Nin-Ja and guys in Kendo gear) and it works okay, even if it feels like every other B-action film of its time. The real nail in the coffin is the “ex-partner who wants to save The Punisher’s soul” subplot, which adds nothing but some painfully bad scenes between Gosset and Lundgren. A more straightforward adaptation of the character paired with the Yakuza/Mafia war plot would have been better, although it would still suffer from low production values (shooting a film set in the U.S. in Australia didn’t help much, either). While the ’89 version is a closer adaptation, in many ways, than the 2004 Jayne film it’s very much a product of it’s time and budget and it is merely an okay direct-to-video late 80s action film.