Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Punisher

  This early effort to bring one of the most famous comic book vigilante characters ever to the big screen landed in 1989, albeit not with the impact the filmmakers had hoped. Due to major financial issues, New World Pictures was unable to give The Punisher the wide release in the USA that it had hoped to. The film debuted on silver screens internationally just fine though. I do firmly believe this is why the movie doesn't have more of a solid cult status now, because when all is said and done... this is a really solid flick.

   ...For the most part.

   First, understand where I'm coming from. I'm assessing this movie on two different standards, for one I'm a massive fan of the Punisher himself. The character is one of my favorites and I've read more comics about him than I have any other character. I would do nothing short of writing my own ideal screenplay for my own ideal Punisher movie (and I have) to see Frank Castle properly represented on screen. One must realize that Marvel movies weren't always box office smash hits. In fact, you don't have to look too far back to find Marvel movies that were met with tepid box office returns and lukewarm critical response.

  To put it in perspective, the absolutely abysmal Captain America movie came out just a year later. But everything wasn't all horrible at the time. Tim Burton's Batman movie came out the same year as this flick, and the awesome The Flash TV show it inspired followed a year after. So, good time for DC fans, not so hot for Marvel- but if you look at the whole of comic book movies coming out, it wasn't a bad time to be a nerd. And then there's this movie.

   It's clearly adequate enough to know when to dole out excitement and suspense, and it delivers both with exceptional efficiency. These are things that are surprisingly easy to botch. (Again, Captain America- case in point...) The Punisher is nothing if not adequate at the very least. After a decent opening and some really cool and stylish opening credits, we slowly start to realize that this movie has a better concept of how he operates than the 2004 reboot did. He doesn't use tricks and deception, he uses guns. Lots of them and the bigger the better. On that field, this movie slays. It's fantastic. The Punisher is always on screen with all kinds of guns, blasting away bad guys left and right.

  This is also why the ideal era to have made the perfect Punisher flick was the 80's. When vigilantism was an unquestionably heroic trait in silver screen heroes, and killing all of the bad guys in cold blood was simply proper etiquette. This is where I'm split on the movie. On one hand, this is a great 80's action flick. It ticks all the right boxes. Broken anti-hero, drives a motorcycle, lots of guns/shootouts, Yakuza-centric plot, stereotypical mafia dudes, etc etc. This movie has the glorious shine of ideal 80's action royalty all over it. I mean, afterall they got Dolph Freakin' Lundgren to play Frank Castle, The Punisher. It doesn't get any better than that, right?

   Right. The good sorta stops there because it's very easy to forget this is also a comic book movie. Imagine... Superman without his cape, or Batman without the pointy ears. That is exactly what happened here. Yessir, the Punisher's trademark skull emblem is gone from his shirts entirely. This does nothing but make him feel closer to being kind of generic. If this movie was called anything besides The Punisher, you'd be forgiven for not knowing it was based on a comic book. Is the emblem really that important? Yeah, I think it is. It's his trademark- his theme.

  It's like making Batman... sans anything to do with bats. It's odd. Sure, you might still have a fun and theatrical superhero/vigilante movie, but it'd be lacking the feel of it actually being Batman. (Something which The Dark Knight came dangerously close to.) The Punisher here is just one black-clad, gun-toting anti-hero among a sea of nearly identical protagonists in the annals of 80's action movies. They made efforts to make him unique, but they were horribly misguided. I read somewhere that his facial hair was supposed to give his face the look of a skull- like the emblem. Well, this might have had some degree of success if it was even hair to begin with (I guess?), but it's not hair... it's paint. That's right. His stubble is literally painted on.

   Half of me wishes they had gone full out and just given him some gnarly war paint and stuck the emblem on his face. Would've worked for me. Instead we just get some awkward looking shit to try and ignore for the entirety of the movie. Sometimes it's easier to ignore it than others, but it was as silly as making the ears on Captain America's hood/mask/cowl/thing plastic. Plastic ears and painted-on facial hair ladies and gentlemen. What a time to be alive. Then, they went and tweaked the nature of The Punisher, mainly regarding his attitude. Instead of being a vigilant soldier, fighting a war on crime, he sorta behaves like a depressed dude who's perpetually drunk and has nothing better to do than to just show up and kill some dickheads who do bad shit.

  It's an important distinction. At one point, he's offered a kevlar vest before going into an enemy stronghold. Does he take it? No. He gives the guy a cold stare and moves on. This is not The Punisher. This is a guy who literally wants to die. He's a borderline psycho who hides out in sewers and kills anyone he thinks is bad. Now, granted, this is an interesting and plausible take on the nature of a vigilante- but it's not... The Punisher. At one point, the same guy asks him something to the effect of, why are you still killing after all these years? Don't you know there's a limit to revenge? And Frank simply replies, "I guess I haven't reached mine yet."

  I doubt this line was given too much thought, but it's perfectly emblematic of the problem with his character in the movie. In the comics, it wasn't so much about revenge as it was about doling out the justice the system was too broken to provide. One of these versions of The Punisher is much easier to root for, the other... is played by Dolph Lundgren. Sure, his snazzy one-liners and comebacks (as dark and depressing as they might be) make for some smile inducing moments, and watching him rescue people and kill bad guys is still extremely satisfying much in the way a proper Punisher flick would be. The problems only rear their head whenever the movie has a lull in the action, and makes efforts to explore the character of Frank Castle.

  It's a shame then that they created such a fully and vividly realized character, only to miss the point entirely. Even more a shame is that the movie houses so much acting talent, again spent on plots and themes that are so far off the mark, it hardly feels like it has anything to do with the source material. Lundgren is convincing as a depressed homicidal psycho, (whether that's a compliment or not is up to you) and I found it interesting how the movie fully acknowledges that he very well might not be a hero at all, and yet still positions him as the only hope some of these people have. Very neat take on it, if not again, a bit misguided.

   Also gracing the movie with their acting skills are Lou Gossett Jr. as a cop who used to be Castle's partner on the force, and Jeroen KrabbĂ© as a mob boss who's forced to seek out the Punisher's help when a ruthless Yakuza boss (Kim Miyori) takes over and kidnaps his kid as leverage. These actors bring these characters to life with more zest than I would've expected. Especially since many of the peripheral supporting roles are played by actors with the range of a piece of cardboard, it was surprising to me that some of the main supporting characters were so engaging. They help to draw you into the movie and end up being more interesting than I expected.

  This review is running a little long, so I'll close by saying this, The Punisher is a misguided effort as a comic book movie, and a rather depressing outing on it's own merits, but it still functions better as the latter- an energetic and hyper-violent 80's action movie with wall to wall bullets and blood. Sure, it's rough around the edges, but as an action movie itself, it's still a really satisfying revenge flick with some top notch action scenes and enough guns to make Rambo green with envy, make the Terminator blush, and to help Neo rescue Morpheus all over again. Comic fans should see it just for comparison against the other two movies, but I'm tempted to say this is pretty much essential viewing for fans of 80's actioners. Despite my gripes, I seriously enjoyed it.

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