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The 100




Punisher, The
(1989)
Reviewed by Chris Edwards
Rating: 3 Beans

here seems to be an unwritten rule about comic book-based movies. If a movie is based on a title published by DC comics, it will be a lavish A-movie with name stars and a ton of promotion. It may not be all that good, but it's usually done big. If, on the other hand, the movie is based on one of the Marvel comics heroes, it will either be a shabby TV-movie or a low-budget B-grade flick that, if it gets released at all, will end up going straight to video. "The Punisher" is based on a Marvel character. Do I have to say more?

The Punisher is not really a household name among superheroes, but back in 1989, he was one of Marvel's hottest properties. Created in the early-70's, the Punisher was derivative of both "Death Wish" and the violent, gun-obsessed "men's adventure" novels then flourishing with series like "The Executioner." The character remained relatively minor until the mid-80's, when Marvel revived and revised him to great success. Around the same time, Marvel entered into an alliance with New World Studios (I believe New World owned Marvel for a time) that was expected to produce comic book based New World movies and New World movie based comics. The idea never got much farther than a "House II" comic book and this movie. Why the Punisher instead of, say, Spider Man? For one thing, Spidey's movie rights were probably in other hands. For another, more practical reason, "The Punisher" didn't entail web-swinging, car lifting, or building smashing. The Punisher used plain old guns to fight his battles, making him a much more appealing subject.

The finished product, though, poses a question, at least in my mind. That is: How much can you alter a character before it stops being the same character? To illustrate this, I will briefly describe the movie Punisher. Every time the film version diverges from the accepted comics version, I will insert the original information beside it. Here goes: Frank Castle, an ex-cop (Marine), is believed dead (known to be alive) after his family perishes due to a car-bomb (when they stumble into a mob hit). Hiding out in the sewer (a high tech warehouse), he wages war on crime with help from his information source, a drunken ex-actor (a computer hacker and weapons designer). Dressed in black leather cycle gear (a bodysuit with a looming death's head emblem), Castle rides his motorcycle (weapon-equipped van) into action against the mob. Meanwhile, Castle's ex-partner searches obsessively for the vigilante he believes is his old friend (no equivalent to this).

I know, this is picayune stuff best left to the Trekkies who aren't smart enough to learn Klingon. But honestly, is the character in this film tied to the character in the comics at all? They seem to have three things in common: They're called the Punisher. Their real name is Frank Castle. Their families are dead, so they kill criminals. Based on that, this could be a western, or a space adventure, or a period gangster film. Suppose "Batman" had given us a middle-class accountant named Bruce Wayne whose family was eaten by cannibals, so he fights crime wearing a baseball uniform, thus people call him Batman. Would that be Batman? Okay, it would have been better than "Batman and Robin," but I hope you get my point. Anyone who knows this character, and watches this film expecting to see that character onscreen, is in for a letdown. The Punisher's not in this movie, just somebody vaguely similar.

Okay, rant concluded. I will now go along with the charade that this movie is about the Punisher for my synopsis: Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, has been killing of the city's mob bosses for five years. Now, the mafia families are allied against a new threat, the yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka. When the Yakuza forces kidnap the mobsters' children, the Punisher sets out to rescue him, and forms an unwilling alliance with mob chieftan Gianni Franco.

Dolph Lundgren could have used the Punisher's skull-emblem costume to help him pull off the role. As it is, with his dyed-black hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and black leather outfit, he looks a great deal like Elvis circa the '68 comeback special. All he needs are the sideburns. Lundgren is hardly the worst actor in the B action business, and he at least usually seems to be having fun. Here, though, it seems he's been directed to play Castle as some sort of zombie, a dead-eyed, monotone sleepwalker who lives only to wipe out bad guys. He's hard to like.

Louis Gossett Jr. plays Frank's ex-partner, Jake Berkowitz. He's there to talk about the Castle, since he won't talk about himself. The main thing I noticed was that Lou had quite a little gut on 'im when they made this. Speaking of which, Jeroen Krabbe plays Gianni Franco. Krabbe, who played General Koskov in "The Living Daylights," is Dutch, and possesses a very hard-to-place continental European accent. Surrounded by his very stereotype-Italian mob cronies, he doesn't quite convince as a Sicilian don. Capice? He's also got a bit of a doughy build, but he still tags along on the final shootout with Castle. Even though he has that movie body armor that makes the bullets not even hurt, I wouldn't want this guy along. The only thing he looks like he could destroy is a plate of biscotti. Oh, now I'm just being mean. I'm sorry.

Kim Miyori plays Lady Tanaka (in the screenwriters' universe, 85% of all Japanese are named Tanaka) as the traditonal Dragon Lady type, dripping with venom. She also looks exactly like Asian character-actor and frequent villain Soon-Tek Oh! (Soon-Tek Oh played the evil colonel in "Missing In Action II," among other things) Lady Tanaka comes complete with a mute teenage anglo girl for a bodyguard. Besides being karate-trained, this girl sports some killer razor-sharp earrings. At one point, she's able to pin a guy's palms to the wall with these things. Think of that. These blades actually found this guy's hands, which were not in their flight path, spread his arms, and nailed his palms to the wall. Wow. These earrings also figure in a continuity glitch near the end you can watch for.

Lastly, sadly, we have the character who makes sure you can't respect this movie. "Shake" is played by Barry Otto. He's a down-on-his-luck actor and shabby lush who provides the Punisher with his info on the doings of the crime families. Why the Punisher would want this bedraggled barfly for a contact is beyond me, but that's not what hurts. Shake talks in rhyme. He even makes up couplets on the fly, depending on what's happening to him. He tells the Punisher his information in the form of poems. If they had to create a new sidekick, did they have to make him this ridiculous? Sometimes it's hard to figure out plot information because it's been all jumbled up to make it rhyme. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. And-he doesn't do it all the time. Sometimes, he just spews doggerel, even under pressure. Other times, he just talks. If he did it all the time, we could assume he's insane and has to talk in rhyme. But he doesn't, so we can only assume he's an idiot. I hate Shake. I hated him when I first saw this movie, I hate him now. You'll hate him too.

The Punisher was made in 1989, but it sat on the shelves for a year or two before it finally went straight to video. It looks to have been edited somewhat, maybe from an intended theatrical version (two images of cut scenes are on the video box). In its favor, the action scenes are pretty good. If they'd trimmed out any mention of the Punisher from the dialogue, I'd probably like this movie in a dumb fun way. As it is, I tolerate it as the only Punisher movie there is, and the only one there's ever likely to be.

Three jacketed-lead beans.






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