Marvel Movie Madness! Part 16: The Punisher (1989)

The guilty must be punished. So will the audience?

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.


Part 16: The Punisher (1989, 24% @ 17 reviews)
Directed by Mark Goldblatt, starring Dolph Lundgren, Jeroen Krabbe, Louis Gossett Jr, Kim Miyori

Alex: To say that this 1989 outing is the best Punisher is less a reflection that the other two are not good and more that this is actually a decent flick. That said, I'm not exactly calling for a Dolph critical re-appreciation; this movie, just like all of the Punishers, has its small cabal of supporters and that seems perfectly reasonable.

With Lundgren still in peak condition, this movie gets a crucial element right: Frank Castle looks scary as hell. The thing with Thomas Jane or Ray Stevenson is that they still look sane after morphing into the Punisher, and their movies glorified the vigilantism as an "ends justifies the means" kind of deal. Here, Lundgren's focused, one-note performance is a great service to the character. With dark, sunken eyes and in a constant sweat, this Punisher is a cracked-out maniac so far removed from the human race he can barely form a coherent sentence.

And this opening monologue?

"Come on, God, answer me. For years I'm asking, 'Why?' Why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment? Or have you already answered? Have you already said to the world: Here is justice. Here is punishment. Here, in me."

Good stuff.


Jeff: Yeah, that's a reasonably well-written little monologue. But I read your thoughts and I feel like we must have seen different movies, because I felt like Lundgren played the Punisher by trying to move, breathe, or blink as little as possible.

But Lundgren's vacant performance isn't the biggest problem. In fact, if The Punisher weren't so silly and cheap-looking, his acting might have been a decent anchor for the flick -- but the whole thing is just a giant mess. I found myself wondering if they used up most of their budget with that big house explosion in the opening, because the rest of the movie looks made for TV; it boasts the sort of flat, one-take cinematography you used to see during episodes of Hunter or The A-Team in the '80s. I'm pretty sure Goldblatt only took this job because he thinks it's neat to blow stuff up (and boy, does he love that old shot where a bad guy goes flying through the air with an explosion in the background).

And the acting! It melts your brain. Scenery is chewed like old gum. I think the best performances were delivered by those hostage mobster kids, but my favorite moment was probably the sequence when the wet-suited Yakuza ninjas kill the guys with French accents that sound like they were airlifted in from the castle scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Having said all that, I have to admit that The Punisher works pretty well as an unintentional comedy, and it has a certain amount of MST3K-style Saturday afternoon cable viewing value. It really is so bad it's good.

Tim: Oh, c'mon, Jeff. It's not that bad. Much like the other Roger Corman-affiliated Marvel movie, The Fantastic Four, I found myself enjoying it, given that my expectations were essentially nil. This is certainly a cheap looking movie, but I think that's indirectly one of its biggest strengths. The Punisher doesn't have any super powers, so there's no need for any bad 1980s special effects. Instead, the action scenes have a certain grittiness to them that's kind of refreshing in our manically edited, CGIed-to-the-gills times -- when a guy is hanging off the side of the bus, he's really hanging off the side of the bus. The director, Mark Goldblatt, subsequently went on to become an Oscar-nominated editor, and The Punisher moves along smoothly and efficiently.

That said, you guys are right: the performances vary wildly. Louis Gossett Jr. is fine, as is noted "that guy" Jeroen Krabbé, but the guy who plays Shake, Castle's sidekick, is just insufferable -- his whole "master thespian" shtick made me think he was auditioning for the role of the wacky waiter at the Max in Saved by the Bell. And yeah, Dolph Lundgren is fine when he's killing people or glowering menacingly, but he's kind of a void otherwise. He and Gossett are supposed to be best friends, but there was never a moment when I believed they'd even met before. What did they used to talk about?

Gossett: Thanks for inviting me over to watch the game, Frank!

Lundgren: (silence, looks off in the distance)

Gossett: Man, I sure hope the Yankees can start hitting again. Their bats have been ice cold for weeks.

Lundgren: (grunts, continues to look off in the distance)

Regardless, The Punisher is a pretty solid B-movie. I was never really bored, but it's by no means a forgotten classic. It's fine.


Jeff: Oh, I wasn't bored either. I was in hysterics. And I can't hate on Shake, because without him, we wouldn't have had the scene where our shadowy, no-nonsense vigilante uses a jerry-rigged remote-controlled car to lure a stuttering wino into a dark alley.

But unlike you, I didn't think the action sequences were gritty at all. In fact, during that interminable scene where the Punisher stands on a table and shoots every square inch of a Yakuza casino, I would have welcomed some handicam or CGI tomfoolery, just to break things up a little. I was left to let my mind wander and ask Punisher-related questions like: Did he build that little remote-controlled car? Does he glue those little skulls on his knives himself? How does he pay for gas? Does meditating naked in a sewer make you explosion-proof?

Alex: Obviously not realistic, but I wouldn't argue it stretched the believability of the movie either. I was so burnt out by the sad and gross sadism of the next two Punisher movies that this movie's cheapo Saturday afternoon TV vibe suits me just fine. Even the opening credits are a comforting ripoff of Night Gallery's intro sequence.

Also, Tim, isn't that the point of the Punisher? A black void who can no longer be reached, even by the people closest to him? He's a monster once beyond hopelessness.

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