First I heard of this movie was when I saw Dolph Lundgren on Entertainment Tonight saying he was going to be doing this character next as he held up a copy of a Punisher comic book. After that it was, I believe, Comics Scene #9 where I finally saw photos of the finished movie. But long before I saw the actual movie I collected comic books for roughly a year or two (1989/1990) and bought The Punisher Movie Special comic that was basically an adaptation of the movie. My most treasured memory, however, is of my then girlfriend. I wish I could remember if it was 1991 or late 1992, but I can’t. All I can remember is The Punisher had finally reached cable and it was on that night. Not late either, but early, and she was coming over for a visit. I seem to think she was coming from work, which might mean this memory is from late 1992. Anyhow, there we were in the living room, watching The Punisher on the couch. I think I even recorded it. Oh, wait, there’s one more memory. Jesus, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention this. I saw the trailer in a movie theater. It may have been the same time I saw a trailer for Warlock (1989), but I can’t remember what movie I was seeing.
To date there are have been three major motion pictures about Frank Castle (aka The Punisher), the Dolph Lundgren version as I always refer to it, the 2004 version with Thomas Jane, and the sometimes too-faithful-to-the-look-of-the-comic, Punisher: War Zone (2008) with Ray Stevenson as Castle, who of the three looks the most Castle-like, but of the three my favorite is still Lundgren’s take.
Doing a superhero origin story in movie form can be tricky, and there are times when the sequels end up being better. Take for instance X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the first sequels made to all of them I find superior, but in the case of this movie Frank Castle’s origin story was handled very well, and that’s because when the movie starts out he’s already The Punisher. And he’s been The Punisher for a good five years. He’s origin story is handled in a pair of quick flashbacks and dialogue from various characters, so you get up to speed real quick on why he is what he is.
I didn’t find out about a longer cut (more on that later) Director Mark Goldblatt constructed until I first got the movie on disc in 1999. There’s a photo on the back of a scene that’s not in the movie. Eventually (i.e. years later) I learned Castle’s origin tale was actually filmed, but excised for whatever reason, and some of the scenes can be seen in the flashbacks. Regardless even without it the movie works perfectly.
As I said Castle has been operating as The Punisher for five years when the movie opens and has racked up over a hundred kills, mostly gangsters from the Franco Family, for it was they who were responsible for the death of his wife and kids. His best friend on the force, Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr.) has been searching for him ever since and he’s the only one who believes Castle is the infamous Punisher. A young female detective, Samantha “Sam” Leary (Nancy Everhard), finds Berkowitz and believes she can help him, because she too believes Castle is the guy.
Castle has so decimated the Franco Family the head of it, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe), is forced to come back to the states and take personal control. Franco’s solution to this is to unite all the competing crime families and this is put to the test when he has a shitload of coke delivered one night at the docs and everyone is there to make sure it comes into America quietly and comfortably. The Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her mute, adopted, American daughter (Zoshka Mizak) have also taken notice of Franco’s drop on the food chain and attempt a hostile takeover. Step one is to crash the party at the docs which results in a lot of the families’ goons being put down. Castle ends up crashing the party too and takes out his share of Yakuza before being knocked out of commission by Tanaka’s daughter.
Step Two of Tanaka’s takeover involves kidnapping the children of the heads of the families and then poisoning the heads to death. Franco was smart he didn’t show up to that “get-together” that resulted in him being the last man standing in the crime family business. But what of his son, and the kids of the others? How does he get them back?
Franco uses Castle like a guided missile, using his friend Berkowitz as insurance he’ll stay with the plan. Castle unwilling complies but promises Franco when it’s all over he’s going to kill him. You see Franco was responsible for that car explosion that killed his family. The final act, the assault on the underground Yakuza stronghold is the icing on the cake for this Marvel hero adaptation as Castle and Franco wipe out just about every Yakuza member they come across. Castle mostly sauntering through with his weapons, dropping each one as they run out of ammo, and taking up another he’s got on him.
From Dolph Lundgren’s Facebook page:
“It was based on a comic strip and it was the first time I played a darker heroic character. The movie was shot in Australia. I went to school there, on a scholarship to the University of Sydney in 1982, so it was interesting to come back there starring in a movie. I hooked up with some of my old friends there, we still stay in touch, even after 20 years. The character was a Martial Artist also, so I brought in two fighters from my old karate school in Tokyo. One of them turned out to become a world champion years later. Both of them were very good, the problem was that they didn’t quite realize that it was only a movie, they thought they had to fight for real, so every time we did a scene, it was quite tough. They have this Japanese code of honor. If they didn’t perform well enough, then their honor was at stake. Performing well meant beating me up, so I had to fight for real at times. The upside was that the fight scenes looked very violent, these men where not stunt men, they where real contact fighters trained for the world title in Tokyo. An added plus in this picture was to work with Louis Gossett Jr, who is a great actor and an academy award winner. He gave me a lot of good advice and a lot of support during the shoot.”
Regarding the comments on the fighting, you can clearly see that in the final act when he’s taking on those two, big, Asian guys (they have no dialogue) it’s clear in more than a few shots they are really connecting with their kicks and punches. And he’s right, too, it does give those scenes that extra “punch” (pun intended).
This movie is very well paced, too. Whenever I watch it, I’m never distracted. And a rare flick (nowadays anyway) where the instrumental music is just as memorable. I remember thinking when I first saw the opening credits the music sounded like something you’d hear in a monster movie, or a Godzilla film. Very menacing. Very distinct.
The movie ends with Castle and Franco squaring off and a confrontation with Franco’s son. This won’t be a surprise to anyone when I reveal Castle gets away, living to Punish another a day. I remembering hearing they were going to do a sequel, but I don’t know if that was something Goldblatt planned or whether it was just rumor.
Here in the United States The Punisher (1989) has been available on DVD only and it first came out in 1999 through Artisan (now owned by Lionsgate). But to Lionsgate’s credit they are just now exploiting their back catalog on blu-ray, so hopefully one day we get a hi-def presentation, until then I recommend Umbrella Entertainment’s (Australia) blu. They also have it out on DVD too. It’s region free despite the Region B listed on the back cover. You can buy it from Amazon here in the U.S. or from Umbrella’s site here!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio, English LPCM Mono, 2.0 English: Dolby Digital—No subtitles.
I haven’t seen the others that have come out overseas, and only have my old U.S. DVD to compare it to, but this particular blu-ray is miles beyond that disc!
Extras Included . . .
- The Punisher: Unrated Cut (Standard Definition)
- The Punisher: Goldblatt Workprint (Standard Definition) (1:37:43)
- Audio Commentary With Director Mark Goldblatt (Unrated Cut Only)
- Violence Down Under: Interview With Mark Goldblatt (21:03)
- Vengeance His His: Interview With Dolph Lundgren (5:27)
- Gag Reel (5:56)
- Theatrical Trailer
Until I saw Umbrella’s version I had no idea there was an Unrated Cut in existence, and basically that cut is the version Goldblatt officially backs, and why his commentary is on that version. It’s the version before MPAA made him cut down some of the violence. I’ll admit the restoration of those pieces do give the flick more of harder edge, unfortunately here they are VHS quality inserts. Although if you’re a fan of this version Koch Media (Germany) has The Punisher on blu with the Unrated Cut in high definition as I hear with the unrated bits looking a lot more polished. Hopefully, when and if Lionsgate gives us a blu here in the States they’ll try and give us a HD version of this cut.
His commentary was good one, answering questions I’ve had recently and for a long while, like why does this Unrated Cut exist? Why did the movie go straight to cable? And were there ever plans for a sequel? I also learned that guy at the dock who couldn’t get his walkie to work (“I can’t get this friggin’ thing to work”) is Donald Gibson. Mel Gibson’s younger brother. Not shit?! Also Goldblatt now thinks it was a mistake to not have Punisher wearing his iconic skull on his chest, which I’ll admit was cleverly integrated into the 2004 remake.
Now that I’ve finally seen the “prologue,” which was interesting, I think Goldblatt got it right when he decided to cut it out entirely and use pieces of it in flashbacks. And the original ending where the encounter between he and Franco went differently, so did his subsequent encounter with his son . . . I also think he was wise to have re-shot that too. Although I did like Lundgren’s suicidal reaction better in the original.
The workprint included is pretty good looking as opposed to what I’ve seen snippets of in other reviews on other releases that have included it and those versions are unwatchable in my opinion. I believe this version is from a Betamax tape Goldblatt owns, though don’t quote me on that, and is very watchable, but clearly of a grade that will remind you of the good ole’ 80s VHS, one you may have found in your collection, watched and realized it hadn’t rotted not nearly as much as it should have. Actually that screenshot above is a pretty good representation of what it looks like.
(Note: Jérémie Damoiseau has written the definitive book on this movie titled, Punisher: The Secret History”; The Making of The Punisher (1989). A longer version will eventually be coming to the U.S. Read more about it here).