Ahh, the old days where movies made from Marvel comics were not exactly the major blockbusters that they are today. I remember seeing previews for this movie years ago and, being the comic book nerd that I am, I immediately thought that it looked terrible. Still, I was curious to watch it so when it came on Showtime/Cinemax (or whatever premium channel it was) and I watched it. I honestly didn’t give the movie much thought until I decided to buy the more recent Punisher movies and figured I might as well get the complete set. So let’s get right into another of Marvel’s early movie attempts, The Punisher (1989).
The plot: The top story on the news is how after 5 years of appeals, mob boss Dino Moretti has been acquitted of all charges in regards to the murder of the Castle family and released from prison. As he leaves the courthouse, a news reporter asks him if he is worried about the Punisher, a vigilante that has killed 125 mob figures and criminals and Moretti scoffs at the notion, unaware of the man in the motorcycle that follows him when he leaves. Reaching his house, Moretti has his men check to make sure they are safe while he goes to get some champagne to celebrate the legal victory but all three of his men end up being killed. When Moretti sees his dead men, he pulls out a gun and after turning around, recognizes his assailant and fores off a shot. Reporters outside the house hear the shot and rush towards the house only to be driven back when an explosion occurs and they see Moretti stumble out of the house before dropping dead, a knife with a skull tipped handle embedded in his back. The reporters see the Punisher in the doorway but he disappears back inside before a second explosion destroys the house. Later that night, Detective Jake Berkowitz, head of the Anti-Punisher task force, is going through the wreckage and avoiding talking to the press when he is approached by the Chief of Detectives, who warns him to drop his story that Frank Castle survived the attack on his family and is in fact the Punisher. As he is leaving, he is approached by Detective Sam Leary, who wants to be his new partner, but he refuses at first until she says she believes Frank is alive and he has her meet him at his office. The next day, Gianni Franco, the head of the mafia family, returns to town and speaks with his lieutenant, saying that he is organizing the different mob families into one family, with himself as the head, and has organized a large shipment of drugs to help solidify his position. Frank meets with Shake, a former actor turned alcoholic, who tells him where the drugs are coming in and who all will be there. As the mafia wait for the drugs to arrive, a group of Yakuza attack the ship and take it over. Frank arrives at the dock and sees the mafia waiting for the boat, but notices some men dressed in black moving around behind the mafia men. As the mafia men are killed, Frank is dragged into the fight as well and manages to kill the driver of the van full of drugs, sending it crashing into the water, but the leader of the Yakuza throws a knife into Frank’s shoulder, causing him to fall into the water. The next day, Franco and the surviving family heads are met by Lady Tanaka, the head of the Yakuza, who tells them that she plans on forming a partnership with them, but she gets 75% of the take. When one of the family heads asks what will happen if they refuse, she tells them she is taking steps to ensure that they won’t, and it is shown that the leader’s children are being kidnapped by the Yakuza. At the police station, Sam is on the computer and trying to track down where the Punisher is hiding out and tells Jake that she believes he is using the sewers. Meanwhile, Shake goes to see Frank and asks what he will do about the impending war between the mafia and the Yakuza and Frank says he will let them kill each other, but Shake asks about the children, saying that they are innocent and will wind up sold to slave traders if they are not rescued. Several of the mob bosses want to pay the ransom for their kids but Franco refuses, believing the best way to save their kids is the Punisher, who he believes is now dead. Meanwhile, Lady Tanaka receives some money for the kids from the slave traders and goes to grab one but when Franco’s son Tommy shoves her away, he is knocked unconscious and taken with them. Frank attacks a Yakuza run casino, leaving a message that for every day the kids are missing, he will hit another business, costing them more and more money. When Jake and Sam arrive at the scene, they find out the Yakuza are involved and hear about the missing children and the Punisher is the prime suspect but Jake doesn’t believe it. Frank and Shake head to an abandoned amusement park, where Shake’s sources say the children are being held but when Frank heads inside, he runs into a Yakuza ambush and is taken prisoner. Frank is placed on a torture rack and Lady Tanaka starts questioning him but when he doesn’t answer, she shows him Shake strapped to another rack and they start torturing him, but when he refuses to answer, she leaves him to attend a meeting. After she has gone, Frank manages to escape his bonds and kill his guards, then learns where the kids are being kept and heads off with Shake. Meanwhile, Lady Tanaka heads to the meeting with the mafia and the mafia heads learn that she had never planned on giving their kids back as three of them are killed by poisoned glasses while the last one, who did not have a drink, is shot by Lady Tanaka. Frank steals a city bus and heads off to rescue the kids but when he is told that two kids aren’t there, he heads back inside to get them. He finds Tommy and the girl but is attacked by the Yakuza. Tommy manages to get the girl to the bus, then goes to help Frank but ends up being captured and Frank is forced to leave him. Driving off with the kids, Frank manages to get rid of most of his pursuers but stops when he comes to a police roadblock and ends up being arrested. Jake goes to see Frank in his cell and argues with him over what he has done since his family was killed. When Franco sees the news that the Punisher was captured, he has his men break Frank out during a prison transfer then asks for his help in rescuing Tommy, threatening to kill Jake, who he had kidnapped, and Frank reluctantly agrees. Frank wires some explosives and tells Shake to detonate them at specific times, then he and Franco head up to the Yakuza headquarters and start fighting their way through the Yakuza soldiers. They separate in order to find Tommy and Frank manages to kill Lady Tanaka’s chief soldiers, including her adopted daughter while Franco faces off with Lady Tanaka. Lady Tanaka holds a knife to Tommy’s throat and forces Franco to stick his gun in his mouth but before he can pull the trigger, Frank bursts into the room and throws a knife into her head. After making sure that Tommy is ok, Franco goes to kill Frank but the two struggle and Franco ends up being shot instead. As Frank starts to walk away, Tommy picks up the gun and threatens to kill him and Frank gets closer to give him a better shot but when Tommy lowers the gun, Frank tells him to grow up to be a good man cause if he doesn’t, he will be waiting. Meanwhile, Jake manages to get free and heads for the Yakuza headquarters and when he gets there, he finds Tommy and asks where Frank is but Tommy doesn’t answer. Noticing a blood trail, Jake follows it outside but doesn’t see Frank and yells out for him, but Frank has already made it back to the sewers, where he plans to continue serving his own brand of justice.
The Punisher (1989) did not meet with many favorable reviews, holding a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The critical consensus on the site is that, “Despite the seemingly indestructible Dolph Lundgren with a crossbow, The Punisher is a boring one-man battle with never-ending action scenes.” The movie received a worldwide release except for a few countries, including the US, where it was originally given a release date but was forced to cancel it due to New World’s financial difficulties and it was released direct to video in 1991 while a cd soundtrack was released in 2005.
I am so glad that Marvel started making better movies because this was just bad. I didn’t really mind Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher, in fact, I thought he was pretty decent, and the other actors were pretty good as well. The story was pretty bad in my opinion, with some changes made from the comic source material, the biggest of which being the Punisher not wearing the trademark Skull design. I didn’t particularly care for the whole Yakuza angle because it kind of became a distraction from the general Punisher story. The fight scenes were ok but some of the action scenes just looked over the top ridiculous, and not in a good way. I am glad that Marvel eventually did a better job with this character because this movie was kind of a train wreck.
Rating: 2 out of 5