Written by David Holland
The Punisher is one of the most challenging comic book heroes to try to adapt on screen. In a lot of ways, he’s just a guy. Sure, he’s a guy with enough firepower to occupy a small country, legendary combat skills, and more baggage than a 747, but he’s still different from most comic book heroes. He doesn’t have superpowers or a brightly colored spandex suit to fit into. He’s not particularly wealthy or intelligent in the Reed Richards sense, nor is he mystical in the Stephen Strange sense. Frank Castle is just someone out to punish evildoers and maybe, while he’s at it, get revenge for his murdered family too.
There are going to be a couple of these low-budget comic book movies from around the same time period in this series. By a twist of fate (also my inability to correctly read a calendar) I accidentally watched the 1990 “Captain America” thinking it was the movie for this week, so now I have seen that film and this one back-to-back. The two are an astonishing contrast in B-movies. Maybe it’s because I needed to scrub the taste of that Captain America movie out of my brain, but I actually quite enjoyed this “Punisher”. It leans into the gritty, R-rated, world-gone-to-hell tone that you need for a good Punisher movie. Punisher’s origins are told through flashbacks of his family’s death and we launch right into Frank Castle doing some good old fashioned punishing. He quickly dispatches a group of mobsters and we learn that he is five years and 125 kills into his career as a vigilante. Unlike his comic book counterpart, he also rides around on a motorcycle which is pretty cool other than the fact that he doesn’t wear a helmet.
There are lots of opportunities for Castle to carry out elaborate murders against the city’s organize crime. Sure, some of it is a bit hokey. He throws knives and swords across crazy distances with unreasonable accuracy. Crowds of bad guys fire automatic weapons at him without so much as grazing him. But all of this is part of the over-the top-fun. This movie also introduces his source, Shakes, an out-of-work, alcoholic actor who serves as Castle’s conscience. The movie never explains how Shakes knows where shipments of drugs are arriving or who exactly will be there, but again that is all part of the fun.
There’s big explosions, car chases, gratuitous violence, all with Dolph Lundgren soliloquizing about God, justice and vengeance. What’s not to love?
The movie swerves pretty dramatically about halfway through. Up until that point Castle had been carrying out his master plan of vengeance against the organized crime families responsible for killing his family and causing so much pain in the city. All of a sudden the Yakuza show up out of nowhere and begin consolidating power. It causes a bit of whiplash. Why do we need the Yakuza when we had perfectly acceptable bad guys already? I know there is that storytelling trope of the Bigger Bad killing and taking the spot of the Big Bad halfway through to show how tough they are, but it just doesn’t seem to fit here. That whole turn felt like an unnecessary convolution. It has the upside of forcing Castle to save the children of the criminals he has sworn to kill, proving he has a conscience, but there would have been other ways to accomplish that.
My other main problem with this movie is not unique to this version of Punisher, but is a problem with any attempt to adapt the character. “Lone dude takes revenge by killing lots of people” is not unique to comic book heroes. There are plenty of examples of protagonists going on violent killing sprees, from your Kill Bills to your Takens. Adaptations of the Punisher often have a hard time distinguishing themselves from other, better entries in the revenge-film genre. In this film, Castle never even dons his signature skull emblem, making it feel even more like a lower tier, run of the mill revenge flick.
A dark but fun B-movie adaptation of Marvel’s most vengeful hero.