Trash or Treasure: THE PUNISHER (1989)
“Trash or Treasure” is a recurring feature at Gordon and the Whale in which I return to a film that holds a special place in my heart (for a multitude of possible reasons) - and see if it is still deserving of that place. Have I been holding on to a piece of trash, or are my beloved films still bonafide treasure?
This edition of Trash or Treasure is inspired by the iconic marvel superhero Captain America. Nope, not the new CAPTAIN AMERICA directed by Joe Johnston starring Chris Evans. I’m referring to the version that was brought upon this planet by Albert Pyun in 1990. Now I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I’m not just doing that movie for Trash or Treasure, and if you really want me to: TRASH!! There, I’m done, that’s about all I ever want to write about that movie. No, I decided on THE PUNISHER because it got me reminiscing about this time in my life. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a strange time for comic book movies, it seems.
At the age of 9 or 10 I couldn’t remember if there was a clamoring for comic book movies, but this was the time in which I collected them. I was really into Superman and Batman and their movies, I was learning more and more about Marvel and can remember coming across CAPTAIN AMERICA and THE PUNISHER on HBO and Cinemax. I saw both as a kid, and barely remembered anything about Captain America (tonight I learned why), but THE PUNISHER was a film I remembered thinking was amazing! I could only see it super late at night because it was so violent, but it was always worth the risk of getting in trouble staying up late to watch it as quietly as I could in my room. Then, as these movies sometimes do, the film disappeared, and as they say: out of sight out of mind. It wasn’t until one day in a used DVD shop that I discovered this film on DVD. Now I get to answer the question I formulated earlier tonight when watching Albert Pyun answer questions in a Q&A about his film and working with Marvel at this time in history. Were all the Marvel movies around this time that bad?
Granted, there weren’t that many Marvel films at the time, but Pyun talked about how these films would typically get their budgets yanked at the last minute, often effecting the quality of the film, and he mentioned THE PUNISHER in that story. Now, it’s apparent that a semi-miniscule budget is what director Mark Goldblatt was working with here, but he still managed to get two great actors in the cast. The legendary and iconic Dolph Lundgren makes a great Punisher. Intimidating, scary voice, rides a badass motorcycle, and can heal his own wounds with the red-hot blade of his bowie knife, he is one the most un-fuck-with-able guys in the history of cinema (a Reel Bad Dude, if you will). Louis Gossett, Jr would, a few years after this movie, go on to star in a film I ended up discovering about the same time TOY SOLDIERS, which is an incredible film. You could say he’s a poor man’s Morgan Freeman, but that’s an unfair assessment to the quality he can bring to a film. He’s unquestionably tough, and another man who is not to be trifled with in this film.
Comic book fans are familiar with the story: Frank Castle is a cop whose family is killed, and when it’s thought that he himself perished with his family, he assumes the identity of The Punisher, a vigilante who shows no mercy when it comes to handing out justice. It’s a simple premise, and one that Marvel has tried to nail down successfully before, and for some reason can’t ever seem to get completely right. It’s true there is an inherent problem with this character in that he does something no other superhero does: he kills. He kills because he’s not a superhero, and therein lays the problem with making a successful Punisher film.
But make no mistake - THIS is the definitive Punisher film. It’s the one that best blurs the line between rated R violence while maintaining overall quality. 2004’s THE PUNISHER placated too much to the star power of John Travolta as the villain, and nothing about Thomas Jane is intimidating at all. Good actor, just not intimidating in any way. In 2008, director Lexi Alexander brought us a version the ruthless vigilante that was over-the-top violent, to an almost comical level. This did not translate to a successful film, but it was a very entertaining one.
Mark Goldblatt did an amazing job with an apparently hard-to-direct Marvel character, and he made a film that is without a doubt the best Punisher film. It’s a shame this film is so underseen. If you get the chance, I can’t recommend it highly enough upon this fresh viewing. Maybe it seems so good because I just got out of a screening of one of the worst comic book adaptations I’ve ever seen, but I’m pretty sure I’m completely valid in my assessment of THE PUNISHER as: