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THE PUNISHER 1989
Movie Review

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THE PUNISHER 1989, THE PUNISHER 1989
Movie Reviews

Director: Mark Goldblatt

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr, Jeroen Krabbe, Kim Myori
Review by Tom Jolliffe


SYNOPSIS:

Five years since mob boss Gianni Franco killed his entire family; Ex-cop Frank Castle has waged a one man vigilante war, notching up 125 kills, working his way up the chain, to Franco himself. Known now as “The Punisher” Castle is being pursued by his former partner, Jake Berkowitz.

When Yakuza boss, Lady Tanaka invades, threatening to take over Franco, and other mob families, operations, Castle is content to sit back and watch the rival obliterate each other. However trouble arises when the innocent children of the mobsters are kidnapped by the Yakuza as collateral. Castles five year killing spree, has weakened Franco’s empire to the point, they can’t contend with the Yakuza. Castle comes out from his dwelling in the sewers, to rescue the children, but the law finally catches up with him. Though the children were rescued, Franco’s own son, Tommy is still captured, and the only man fearless enough of death to help him, is Castle, about to be executed for his crimes. Castle is broken free by Franco, and now must join forces with the man who killed his own family, in order to save the life of ex-partner Jake, captured by Franco, and young Tommy.

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REVIEW:

Based on the Marvel comics character, this loose adaptation is the lesser known movie version of its inked cousin. In recent years, Thomas Jane fronted a Punisher adaptation, that did reasonable numbers, though still alienated the core fans, and certainly did not go down well with critics. In that regard, Dolph Lundgren’s version of Mr P, is no different. Initially audiences didn’t respond well, and critics certainly tore it to ribbons. Indeed, this had problems even making it to the lime-light, when New World Pictures collapsed shortly before its release. As a result, this went straight to video in the US. Still, with the benefit of time, and a recent surge in the popularity of some once forgotten, simple meat and potatoes actioners, Dolph’s Punisher, has been revisited and by some, re-evaluated. Certainly, the film is a lot more popular now that it was when it first arrived. Not to say it’s the new Blade Runner, but there’s definitely been some new found appreciation.

Mark Goldblatt, the expert cuts-man, who has edited some of the best action films ever made, including Terminator 1 and 2, is helming here. What the Blattster delivers is something quite inconsistent. It’s quite trashy at times, and certainly often lacks directorial experience. But in others, Goldblatt actually gets the choicest dramatic moments of any of the Punisher films, inc the most recent, Punisher: Warzone. There’s moments in this film that really do work well. But as a whole, taken on the surface, this should be seen as a good old fashioned, slam-bang, action fest! Arguably this film is as renowned for its high death count, over any other element in it. There’s plenty of carnage. The grimy, dirty, and pretty cheap, look of the film also gives it something of an exploitative feel. If the Punisher was black, this film would have been made in the mid-70’s, with Fred Williamson in the lead, and probably, in many ways, been exactly the same film as delivered here. It’s reputed that Tarantino is a fan of this version, and certainly some of the moments in this films finale, share similarities with the finale of Kill Bill Vol 1.

So, this is a Punisher film. And what of the man himself? Dolph Lundgren certainly looks, of all movie Punishers, most capable of dishing out said punishment. With his dyed dark brown hair, his image is far different from his previous films to this point. While his drawn face, caked in grime, and expressionless eyes, make Lundgren a very effective Punisher. Castle in this version is a guy who’s almost a wandering entity now. He’s soulless, half dead, and surviving only for retribution. People can say what they wish about Lundgren’s acting ability, but here, playing a guy who’s been living in the sewers for 5 years, only emerging to kill mobsters, and haunted by memories of the family he once had, he actually does a decent job. Indeed, we also see some of Dolph’s best acting work, when he’s allowed to share screen time with the two calibre actors of the piece, Louis Gossett Jnr, and Jeroen Krabbe. There’s some scenes which work really well, and Lundgren simply has to play off the two quality actors. In particular there’s a great sequence after Castles been arrested where Lundgren and Gossett Jnr share the screen, for the only time in the film. Gossett Jnr goes method on Dolph’s ass, and makes for a good scene. There’s a certain uncertainty about Dolph then, about how to react to someone throwing away the pages, so to speak, and being unpredictable. The fact Lundgren almost seems like he doesn’t quite know how to respond, actually works for Castle at that moment. It works really well. His few scenes with Krabbe, also bring the best out of himself.

As for the action, Goldblatt knows the game well. He’s worked with many an expert destroyer of sets, notably James Cameron, and at the very least, you expect the action to be tightly edited, which it is. Goldblatt keeps the pace quick, relentless, and has plenty of movement, kinetic energy, to give the carnage scenes, drive and power. The film utilises Dolph’s martial arts training well too. The fight scenes are simple and grounded. They’re almost an interesting pre-cursor to how fight scenes have progressed to the point they are now. The stunt team, and Lundgren wanted to make the fighting seem un-rehearsed and authentic, and aided by some livewire camera work, they’re fast and brutal. Certainly more complex than most 80’s action film fisticuffs.

The score by Dennis Dreith is very good. It’s very different, and highly effective. He seems to be an example of a musician having done few film scores, because of how outside the box he thinks. It’s a score not all will appreciate, and probably one which the producers maybe felt indifferent on, because it wasn’t a safe bet. Aside, the sound design works well, though some overdubbing borders on Hong Kong movie ridiculous, especially the child casts dubbing. Cinematographer Ian Baker paints are dark, dirty pallet. The film stock isn’t the best, and undoubtedly, the film was made cheaply, but filmed mainly at night, Baker uses the dark to good effect, and it all fits in with the character of Castle. There’s some very good looking sequences indeed though, particularly the Yakuza dojo finale.

Overall this is an action film, the likes of which, are an increasing rarity now. There’s some intent to make something decent, though not always finding the target. But it’s also dark, violent, and most definitely a hard R-rating. Lundgren in his pomp, does what’s expected of the 80’s action stars, and that’s to unleash a potent blast of ass-kicking!

If this was a pre-vis, to a better film, it would be to a Chris Nolan version of The Punisher. It’s dark tone, and pulsating rhythm, for what is essentially based off a comic book, bring to mind what Nolan eventually did with the Batman franchise. Perhaps the three creative visions between writer Boaz Yakin, producer Robert Mark Kamen, and director Goldblatt, combined, result in the inconsistency, but amongst the films tonal shifts, there’s enough gems to really appreciate, and above all, it’s a film called The Punisher, and there’s plenty of punishment. Skull on jacket, or not.

Tom Jolliffe

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THE PUNISHER 1989


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