Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Punisher (1989)

Why yes, this film was made in the 80s.

Dolph Lundgren is a pretty interesting guy. If all you knew of him were his film roles, you'd assume he was just a big dumb action movie actor. You'd be wrong (and a bit prejudiced too... actors are people too, man. Have a bit of respect.) Here is a strapping 6'5" blonde who is a world class karate champ, speaks five languages and has a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering. I'm not a supporter of Nazi eugenics (how's that for a qualifying statement) but I think Dolph Lundgren makes a pretty good case for the Master Race.

In this version the Punisher wears head-to-toe leather and combat boots, accessorising with knives and ammo pouches etc. He doesn't have the big skull emblem on his shirt, which isn't a big issue for me but it's pretty funny because that's the only thing separating him from any other garden variety vigilante. They've dyed Dolph's hair black and to be honest it looks pretty stupid. He's also got a five o'clock shadow that looks like it's been painted on. That, along with his pasty skin and unkempt appearance, makes him look like a guy playing dress-up at a comic book convention. Minus the beer gut. However, he's a pretty big dude and when he's fighting he looks pretty skilled and intimidating.

The film opens with a news report ("Channel 5 News - All Movie Exposition, All the Time") that fills us in on the Punisher's rampage. His killing spree has been going on for about 5 years, and in that time he has killed about 125 people. Over the course of the film he racks up about the same amount in a couple of days, which means he's really been dragging his ass over the last half-decade. A mafia Don's trial is acquitted and he brags to the press that he is untouchable. Of course, the Punisher busts into his fancy mansion and kills everybody before blowing it up. It's a good introduction.

They don't spend a lot of time on Frank's origin, which is good because it's pretty standard fare. It's been changed a little from the comic book, but the end result is pretty much the same. Family killed by criminals... goes on vigilante rampage. In this version, Frank Castle was a police officer instead of a Vietnam vet, and his family was killed by a car bomb instead of being executed after witnessing a mob hit. His former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) is now head of an anti-Punisher task force and is convinced that the Punisher is Frank Castle (who is believed dead in the explosion that killed his family).

Now, I'm not the kind of guy who reads homosexual subtext into everything and then giggles at every little innuendo. Okay, maybe I am. Still, the way Berkowitz single-mindedly pursues Frank really makes me wonder. This reaches a high note when Berkowitz, on the verge of tears, shakes Frank by the shoulders and shouts "Let me in! Let me in!" After the Punisher spurns his tearful plea, Berkowitz's new partner (female, by the way) tells Frank that Berkowitz lives for him and asks him "how long can someone live after you've cut out their heart?". Enough with the homoerotic melodrama. What is this, a John Woo film?

Okay, five paragraphs in and I haven't even started on the main plot. Basically, Frank's crime spree has weakened the mafia and left them vulnerable. The Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Kiyori), swoop in and take over, demanding a 75% cut of all the mafia's crime operations. They refuse, so the Yakuza kidnap all of their kids and hold them for ransom. Regardless of whether the mafia pay up, the Yakuza are going to sell the kids into slavery, so the Punisher steals a school bus and heads in to rescue them. It's like Warbus except it's in New York instead of Vietnam and he's fleeing the Yakuza instead of the Viet Cong. Actually I guess it's pretty different, I just couldn't let go of an opportunity to mention Warbus.

Because the bad guys are Yakuza and it was the 1980s, they try to cram in as many Japanese stereotypes as possible. The Yakuza have a kendo school at their headquarters and Lady Tanaka does a Geisha dance and spends the whole climax of the movie in full makeup. And of course, there are lots and lots of ninjas. The Punisher even gets ambushed at Coney Island and a bunch of ninjas with machine guns come racing down a big slide. "Wheeeee! Last one to the bottom has to polish all the shuriken!" Lady Tanaka has a mute American adopted daughter, who has all these hidden knives and shuriken earings and things.

So with all these blades and guns, you'd be pretty annoyed if you ended up with some sissy PG-13 film, but luckily they pushed the R rating pretty far. At one point Lady Tanaka ambushes a bunch of the mafia gangsters at a restaurant. At her command everybody else at the restaurant (old ladies, young couples, bespectacled accountant-looking dudes) pulls out a piece and blows away all of the gangsters' bodyguards. This is after she'd poisoned the gangsters by the way. That's the kind of overkill I'm hope for when I go into a film named The Punisher.

One more thing that is really worth noting, when the Punisher isn't out Punishing, he hangs out in the sewer butt naked and surrounded by candles and mumbles to God. Didn't Jesus suffer enough on the cross, Frank? Don't make him look at your wing-wang too. So they kind of botch the tortured loner thing, especially since he has a comedy sidekick, a homeless Shakespearean actor who talks in rhyming couplets, which probably looked better on paper. At one point the Punisher lures him into an alley with a bottle of whiskey attached to a remote control car. Pretty elaborate plan, why couldn't he just whistle?

Okay, I'll come out an say it... I kind of liked this stupid film. It is extremely 80s with enough ridiculous touches (ninjas on slides, Berkowitz emotional plea, naked prayer) to kick it over the line of enjoyability. The Punisher... not particularly punishing.

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