Two years ago, I saw and accidentally enjoyed the 2004 movie THE PUNISHER starring Thomas Jane. It was another attempt at a movie version of some Marvel Comics Book which had once been made by none other than Dolph Lundgren. After I saw that movie, I wrote a review (see below), then I looked into the eyes of the universe and I made a solemn vow that one day maybe I would see the Dolph Lundgren version, who knows.
Well today I saw Dolph’s version and I’m here to report that it’s okay. I liked Thomas’s version the best but this one definitely has its moments. Like the 2004 one, this is definitely more in the action movie/vigilante style than some kind of Batman or Superman deal. The main comic book element is that Punisher lives in the sewers and has tunnels to bring him everywhere. Also he has a wacky sidekick who is some kind of homeless guy who always claims to be a theater actor, and who always rhymes.
One nice touch is that at the start of the movie Punisher has already been the Punisher for ten years and has killed 125 people or something. So you don’t have to bother with the whole explanation of how he starts out and everything. The movie begins with a news report about how the guy who killed former cop Frank Castle’s family has now been exonerated by the justice system. A reporter asks this bastard if maybe he is worried about this Punisher guy who has been killing all his mob associates. He says no and dares the Punisher to come within a thousand yards of him.
But of course the Punisher is sitting nearby on his motorcycle. We don’t see his face but we know it’s him by the shot of a boot with knives attached to it. He follows the guy home and kills off his bodyguards while he’s getting out the champagne. This is a fun scene because you never see the Punisher, he’s like some unseen force throwing knives and shit. My favorite is when he nimbly tosses a noose around a guy’s neck from a balcony above and lifts him up.
There’s a bunch of reporters huddled outside the mansion and they hear gunshots, which for some reason causes them to run onto the property to investigate. I guess back then reporters would risk their lives for a story instead of just waiting for the government to announce the official explanation of what happened and then transcribe that word for word and pretend it counts as reporting. As they get to the front door all the windows start blowing out and the whole place is in flames. The mob boss stumbles out and falls over dead with a patented Punisher Skull-handled Knife in his back. Behind him you can just make out Punisher standing in flames and somebody yells, “oh shit, the Punisher!”
I know I’m describing this in too much detail but I just want to acknowledge that this is a great introduction to the guy, it’s like he’s a damn bigfoot or something and these guys got a blurry shot of him. Good stuff.
Unfortunately as we get to know the Punisher a little more intimately he starts to seem a little less cool. It probaly seemed to make more sense in the ’80s, but now days you really gotta question anybody that’s so obsessed with punishment. I mean if he just called it revenge it would seem a little more reasonable, but punishment? That seems kind of perverted. That’s what the killer wanted in the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT movies, and the reason he wanted it was because his sexuality was stunted by mean nuns.
The Punisher is portrayed as crazy and over the line, but I think you’re also supposed to see a certain amount of sense in what he’s doing, and I’m not sure that holds water. Then again, The Punisher makes a better action hero than The Nuanced Solution Finder or The Guy Who Lowers the Crime Rate By Tackling the Root Problems Such As Poverty, Racism, Education, Drug Addiction and Parenting. I guess that’s just the dumbifying power of the Cinema.
But still, this version of the Punisher doesn’t go as far as the Thomas Jane version in making you identify with the character, because they make some pretty bad moves. For one thing, the movie opens and closes with a flying camera shot of him sitting in the sewer naked as he recites some cornball narration about his punishment philosophy. I mean, what kind of a guy sits around naked in a sewer narrating? The other problem is that Dolph is bad at the narrating. You guys know I like Dolph, ever since I saw BLACKJACK. The guy won me over. But in this role he is back in mumbling meathead mode like in all those movies where he’s supposed to be Russian, and he’s just not likable. When he’s not murdering people he’s sitting in the sewer brooding. Thomas Jane drank alot of booze, this guy seems just as miserable but he does it all in his mind. I like the tortured hero in theory, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s just no fun. The only time you really like the guy is when he makes jokes at inappropriate moments.
For example, when he and his sidekick are both being tortured on racks, and he still won’t give in. The Yakuza boss has to go to a meeting so she leaves him with the torturers. As she’s walking away he says, “Wait!”
She turns around to see if he’s given in. “What?”
“Have a nice day.”
But he doesn’t get too many moments like that.
Also he looks kind of silly. They dyed his hair dark and it looks like they even painted his five o’clock shadow on him, I’m not sure, but whatever the deal is he looks phoney. At least he’s not wearing the spandex with the skull on it.
But the plot is pretty good. The Punisher has murdered more than a hundred top gangsters, leaving them vulnerable. So some Yakuzas come and say they’re taking over, the Italians will still do all the work but the Yakuzas will get 75% of the take. The Italians don’t like this idea so to try to win them over the Yakuzas kidnap their children and say they’re going to sell them into slavery.
At first Frank Punisher doesn’t give a shit but his rhyming actor homeless wacky sidekick guy convinces him that the children are innocent, so he steals a bus and goes to save them. So basically the movie’s about saving the children. This movie is actually a decent argument against the theory of badass juxtaposition I’ve been pushing all these years, because I think Dolph Lundgren seems less badass when he cares about children. But maybe that’s just me.
Meanwhile, Punisher’s ex-partner is the head of the Punisher task force. Most people believe Frank is dead and could not be the Punisher, but this guy knows it’s him. He’s played by Louis Gossett, Jr. and he’s the only good actor in the whole movie.
The thing that makes this movie memorable is that it has a uniquely over-the-top tone to the violence. Alot of people get killed in this one (according to IMDb, 91 people not including large groups killed by explosions and what not). Lots of flying knives, swords, large explosions, bigass gundowns. They slaughter a whole dojo full of karate dudes (not fair, they don’t have guns). Lots of characters use boots with knives that pop out of them. One Yakuza takes off her dangly earrings and throws them to nail a guy’s hands into a wall. Apparently the original version was way more violent and better, but they cut it in most countries so I haven’t seen that version.
There’s one fight that takes place at Coney Island which is cool because you get to see a bunch of ninjas coming down a big slide firing machine guns. I always appreciate a movie that tries to find things you haven’t seen before, such as a ninja/slide/machine gun combo.
Dolph used to be a karate champion and apparently for the karate parts in this one they didn’t choreograph, they just had them spar, to make it look more realistic. I guess it works in a couple parts but there’s not much hand-to-hand fighting, it’s usually with weapons.
Speaking of weapons, I don’t understand where Punisher gets his. He has these skull knives he always throws, and he never re-uses them. Just throws them at a guy and leaves them on the scene. These are nice knives, custom-made, and he goes through them like toilet paper. Not to mention all the guns and bullets he uses. I don’t think there’s any explanation for how he makes his living. I’m sure he saves money by not having to pay rent, and I never noticed him eating food or anything. But still, those weapons are expensive. He must have a seasonal job on a fishing boat or something.
The director is Mark Goldblatt whose only other movie as a director is DEAD HEAT, but he edited all types of shit including TERMINATOR 1&2, RAMBO and STARSHIP TROOPERS. I will not discuss his talents as a director because he edited ARMAGEDDON so the motherfucker is dead to me.
The writer is Boaz Yakin, his first movie. You might not’ve heard of this guy but he directed a real good one called FRESH years ago, and a couple others I care not to mention. His most famous is REMEMBER THE TITANS which I haven’t seen. But he also co-wrote FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2 and I still think that might be the best straight to video sequel to date. So I got some amount of respect for him and figure he is responsible for the knives coming out of the boots and the ninjas on slides.
Overall, this is not exactly a great movie, but at least it’s a distinctive one. If you only see one PUNISHER movie in your life, don’t see this one. But if you have time for two, it’s worth a shot.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.