The Film: 4/5
Dolph Lundgren’s days as a marquee action movie star were brief, but during his abbreviated reign one of the man’s best roles was as Marvel Comics’ iconic vigilante anti-hero Frank Castle in The Punisher, a stylish and punchy 1989 New World Pictures release that played in theaters throughout most of the world but never hit a single screen here in the States due to the studio’s plummeting fortunes. Instead American viewers wouldn’t get the chance to see the film until it went directly to home video in 1991, undeservedly joining features such as Albert Pyun’s extra cheap Captain America and the unreleased, Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four on the Island of Misfit Marvel Movies.
With Sydney, Australia standing in for the mean streets of New York City, The Punisher finds ex-cop Castle five years into his never-ending nocturnal mission to send every criminal scumbag in the Big Apple to an early grave. The movie opens with our man Frank taking down the mobsters responsible for the car bomb that killed his wife and daughter. Leaving a huge gap in the local La Cosa Nostra’s leadership structure, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) comes home to take charge of the family and finds himself facing a bloody turf war with the Yakuza, led by the fearsome and merciless Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). Tanaka responds to Franco’s refusal to stand aside and let her gang of samurai enforcers rule the street by kidnapping his son Tommy (Brian Rooney) and the children of the family’s other higher-ups. In their most desperate hour, the mob must turn to their other worst enemy – the freaking Punisher – for help in getting their kids home safe and sound. Castle is forced to choose between his vow to destroy the guilty and his responsibility to protect the innocent while his old partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr.), believing his legally deceased former friend to be the city’s most feared vigilante, works to bring the Punisher to justice with the help of his new partner Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard).
Ace action editor Mark Goldblatt, a Corman protégé whose mastery of the moving image has graced such classics of the genre as The Terminator (and its first sequel), Nightbreed, and Starship Troopers, made his directorial debut with the 1988 cult classic action-horror-comedy Dead Heat for New World Pictures, the studio where he began his editing career at New World in the days when it was by Corman as both an exploitation factory and a film school that essentially gave birth to the New Hollywood. Although that flick didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, Goldblatt’s considerable skills behind the camera impressed studio suits enough to give him a shot bringing the Punisher to the big screen. New World had actually purchased Marvel Comics in November 1986 but they failed to exploit any of their valuable superhero properties as either film or television ventures, outside of reviving the Incredible Hulk as a trilogy of made-for-TV movies on NBC. At one point Repo Man/Sid & Nancy director Alex Cox was working on a Dr. Strange film for the studio, but that obviously failed to amount to anything.
Honestly, what is required to make a great Punisher flick? Get his origin story (which doesn’t radioactive ANYTHING) right, supply him with plenty of weapons and bad attitude, and turn him loose on the criminal scum of the city. Find a decent actor to play Castle who can brood convincingly and kick plenty of ass without the constant need for a stunt double. Keep the pacing tight and make sure the villain is colorful and menacing enough to give the Punisher a real challenge. Maybe that last part didn’t entirely happen, but a good Punisher movie needs to be a violent action B-flick, down and dirty with enough stacks of bullet-riddled corpses to build Donald Trump’s insane border wall. Goldblatt’s movie nails the other requirements without breaking a sweat and has a marvelously jaunty time doing it.
Complain if you must about the lack of a skull on the character’s work clothing, but Goldblatt and screenwriter Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Now You See Me) are savvy enough to pay homage to the iconic Punisher insignia by giving the vigilante special killing knives with silver skulls attached to the butt of each blade. It’s also worth noting that instead of Castle’s trusted tech-head sidekick Microchip supplying him with hardware and intel, Goldblatt and Yakin give him a Shakespearean actor-turned-slovenly wino named Shake – played by Australian actor Barry Otto (The Great Gatsby) who keeps his ears to the gutter and provides Castle with both important info and a conscience. Otto is also the film’s main source of intentional humor and his performance delights when it really could have annoyed.
Louis Gossett, Jr. is naturally strong and sympathetic in a rather thankless role as the former partner of Castle’s who is always a few steps behind everything happening in the plot. His only genuinely good scene in the film finds him face to face with the man he once called a friend and colleague and it’s a painful sight to watch Gossett futilely attempt to reconnect with Castle and find some semblance of a human being beneath the cold exterior of a remorseless killing machine. Jeroen Krabbe of Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man and the Oscar-winning The Fugitive makes the most of limited material as the besieged Mafia boss trying to keep his family and THE family from being ripped apart by the machinations of Lady Tanaka, portrayed with hauntingly graceful evil by Kim Miyori (St. Elsewhere). British actor Bryan Marshall (The Long Good Friday) gets to chew a little scenery early in the film as the crime lord whose death at the hands of the Punisher sets the plot in motion.
Goldblatt’s cinematographer of choice on The Punisher was Ian Baker, an authentic artist of a director of photography whose best work could be found in his collaborations with director Fred Schepisi, including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the Willie Nelson western Barbarosa, and the romantic comedy Roxanne. Baker’s camerawork is key to turning the beautiful city of Sydney into an urban American cesspool where dark alleys and steam-spewing grates conceal untold human evils. He achieves a perfectly noirish appearance for the night scenes and uses some inventive lighting to bring mood to Castle’s secret sewer lair created by production designer Norma Moriceau (Something Wild) where he meditates fully nude in a samurai pose on the nature of his mission. Goldblatt concocted some clever action beats – usually involving armies of masked warriors – that are executed with style and edited with cool precision by Tim Wellburn, whose other credits include George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action masterpiece The Road Warrior. It’s all wrapped in a note-perfect orchestral score composed by Dennis Dreith, who is possibly best known as an orchestrator for huge Hollywood films like Alien 3, Jurassic Park, and The Rock. Keep an eye out for a 42nd Street grindhouse theater marquee displaying Make Them Die Slowly, the American title for Umberto Lenzi’s infamous Amazonian gut-munching epic Cannibal Ferox, during the opening credits montage.
I am assuming that the 1080p high-definition transfer of The Punisher presented on this Blu-ray is pretty much the same one that has been released before since the film has been available on Blu in the U.K. and Germany for several years and Umbrella Entertainment didn’t mention creating their own fresh HD scan. The source elements used for this transfer appear to be in solid condition; dirt and scratches are minimal, grain is balanced and consistent, and the color scheme that favors cool blues and blacks (except during the finale in the Yakuza headquarters where reds and whites take center stage) remains true to the filmmakers’ intentions. Framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, this transfer is excellent. The film come with a robust English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks that boast balanced volume, audible dialogue, and an uncluttered presentation of the music and sound effects. The theatrical cut was also supplied with an English LPCM 2.0 track to better suit the needs of consumers without home theater set-ups. No subtitles have been provided.
The unrated cut, which has approximately the same running time as the theatrical version, has been included here as an extra feature, and as a bonus it comes with an audio commentary from Goldblatt. The director rarely lets his solo chat track lag as he discusses making the film in Sydney, adapting the comic for the screen, executing the stunts and fight scenes, his working relationship with Lundgren, and much more. Video quality on this cut is slightly darker than the theatrical version and has its share of flaws, but it has a good English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. I couldn’t spot many differences between the two cuts outside of a little extra blood in the unrated version.
“Violence Down Under” (21 minutes) brings back Goldblatt for an on-camera interview where he talks in detail about how he came to be involved with The Punisher, the Australian production, its critical and commercial reception, and a few other topics of interest that he also goes into on his commentary. “Vengeance Is His” (5 minutes) spends a brief amount of time with Lundgren talking about playing Frank Castle, getting into shape for the film’s many action sequences, and more. The featurette was shot in a gym and could have been longer, but any new input from our man Dolph about playing one of the most iconic antiheroes in comic book history is better than none at all.
The 98-minute workprint is presented here, reportedly sourced from Goldblatt’s own Beta copy, in standard definition. It features many extended and alternate scenes (including a 17-minute opening sequence that sets up Castle and Berkowitz’s friendship and shows us the death of Castle’s family in full) and has a temporary score comprised of music from other films, including Aliens and the Rambo series. The workprint looks and sounds about as good as can be considering the age and condition of the source materials and is infinitely more watchable that the lower-quality bootlegs floating around the Internet.
What is listed on the packaging and special features menu as a gag reel is more of a humorous short (6 minutes) possibly made for the production’s wrap party. It has plenty of the cast and crew goofing off for the enjoyment of the ever-present camera with the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” as a cheeky backing tune. The international theatrical trailer (2 minutes) is the last of the supplements. Umbrella’s Blu-ray also comes with reversible cover art; the artwork on the reverse side makes the Punisher look like a zombified Brock Samson from The Venture Brothers. I prefer that image.
The Punisher ’89 is a fast-moving B-movie with plenty of action and fun that doesn’t deserve its reputation as one of the worst comic book flicks ever made. Dolph Lundgren was the best Frank Castle until Jon Bernthal and director Mark Goldblatt gives every scene style and infectious energy. It ain’t perfect, but damn if I don’t love it so. The new Blu-ray from Umbrella is worth importing for its excellent a/v quality and cool supplements. Highly recommended.