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The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat - The Punisher (1989)

Jan. 27th, 2013

10:55 am - The Punisher (1989)

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Everyone's favourite serial killer/vigilante Frank "The Punisher" Castle (Dolph Lundgren) is five years into his never-ending killing spree of Mafiosi and other criminals caused by the Mafia accidentally blowing up his family with a car bomb. Castle's efforts have weakened the crime syndicates so much, they need to reimport men like Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) from England to have any vaguely competent bosses at all.

As it goes with this sort of power vacuum, other criminals attempt to move in on the Mafia's turf, namely the united yakuza clans under Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). What, after all, would a US action movie of this era be without all foreigners in it being evil? Lady Tanaka is a bit more competent and lacking in scruples than the remaining Mafia is capable of dealing with. Still the dons refuse her gracious offer of leaving them the City's day to day operations and twenty-five percent of the income. Clearly, rougher methods are needed, so the Yakuza kidnap the dons' children - not really to blackmail their fathers (there are no mothers in this movie) but to sell them into slavery. Oh those evil foreigners!

Ironically, the Mafia's only hope now is Frank Castle, because, as his alcoholic British actor informant Shake (Barry Otto) informs him, the situation is kind of his fault, and the children are innocents after all. I foresee a lot of dead Yakuza in Castle's future, that is, if his former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) who has been after him for these five years, won't catch him first.

Remember the olden days, when the best Marvel Comics could think of doing with their properties was shoving them off into directions like the greedy little hands of Roger Corman and New World Pictures? The Punisher as directed by future blockbuster editor Mark Goldblatt is clearly the best of the handful of resulting Marvel movies of this era, seeing as it, unlike Albert Pyun's Captain America, actually gets what the character is about (a seriously deranged guy murdering lots of more or less colourful gangsters), and doesn't go out of its way to annoy its potential audience. It's not a well-loved film, though, because Lundgren isn't exactly the obvious choice of actor, and he doesn't even wear the iconic skull shirt! Or something.

Tonally, this one feels very much like Mike Baron's stint with the character in comics, that is it is entertainingly violent, very much a thing of its time, and often also very silly. This is, after all, the kind of film where Castle when he goes to rescue a bunch of kids first steals a bus to transport them (sadly, not a yellow school bus). For that's how you transport children, right? And a film where the mute adoptive daughter of the main bad woman is inevitably a ninja. And her mum owns a pair of awesome automated torture racks she even brought with her to the US, just in case she needs to torture Dolph Lundgren. And where Louis Gossett Jr plays someone named Berkowitz.

Action and violence-wise, this is a professional, tightly edited action movie in the style of its time, with lots of automatic weapons making surprisingly tiny holes in people, knife throwing (who makes Castle's skull-handle throwing knives, by the way?), destroyed cars and quite a few scenes of Lundgren rappelling down from ceilings, as is the traditional tactic of the Punisher. The action is never quite as kinetic as I would wish for, but then brutal, if somewhat silly, heft fits Castle much better than anything more elegant anyway, and it sure is fun to watch as a silly-violent comic book movie.

Lundgren - never a personal favourite - is fine in his role too, seeing as the film mostly needs him to look grim while killing a lot of people, and roll his eyes in anguish from time to time, because Personal Tragedy! These are things Dolph knows how to do and does well, so I'm not going to complain about his performance here.

The way the film treats its foreign characters, as typical as it is of its time and place, would rather be more reason to complain about - Lady Tanaka isn't much better developed than Fu Manchu - but the film's jingoist undertones more or less deconstruct themselves. After all, the people standing in for the clean (oh, the irony) American Way of Life are a bunch of drug-dealing gangsters and a serial killer, so it's not as if the film were actually making any sort of coherent racist argument. It's just too dumb to think about how it uses its clichés.

That's perfectly okay for the kind of movie this is, one which really isn't out to explain the world to us but to entertain us with silly pretend-violence and shots of Dolph Lundgren sitting naked in the sewers. The Punisher is pretty great at that.

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