The Punisher (1989)

There was a long period of time where I didn’t even know there was a Punisher flick from the late 80’s starring Dolph Lundgren, and I blissfully lived under the assumption that the character never entered cinema until 2004 when Thomas Jane tried it on for size, and although that’s still my favourite take on Frank Castle to date, in terms of both performance and film overall, the Dolph one is a pretty badass slice of retro action pulp that I greatly enjoyed. It’s not an origin story and doesn’t have much use for exposition, time spent on tragic backstory (beyond a few haunting flashbacks) or dark rumination, it’s strictly a blast of violence, chases and genre thrills built around the visual aesthetic of the Punisher. He’s already been doing this for quite a while here, and Lundgren, strikingly brunette here, imbues Frank Castle with a sort of tired and unimpressed yet still viciously violent edge as he teams up with an equally sardonic cop (Louis Gossett Jr) to take on pretty much every criminal faction in the city including a tribe of psychotic matriarchal Yakuzas and one pissed off drug Baron (Jeroen Krabbe) who initially hired Frank to find his kidnapped son and then inevitably can’t be trusted not to be a backstabbing lunatic. There’s an absolute ton of exciting, well staged action set pieces here including an extended bus chase all over the city, endless thundering shootouts and Frank roaring around on a huge black motorbike that he uses to descend into the subterranean tunnels below the city in a decidedly Batman-esque flair. This version is stripped of much of the mythology behind The Punisher and is more just a straightforward, bloody, pulpy action extravaganza, and had the film not been called Punisher and Dolph not been credited as Frank Castle it would just be another day at the Lundgren races. However, they chose to make it a Punisher film and it’s better for that, Dolph fits the role like a glove, and although my only complaint is that he didn’t get to wear that classic skull logo on his chest that we know so well, he inhabits the gritty, browbeaten, heavy artillery sporting viciousness of Frank very well, whether he’s beating hordes of goons mercilessly or literally mowing down more of them with a fucking Gatling gun he found somewhere. It’s brutal, urban, feels just ‘comic book’ enough to fit the aesthetic and has a ballsy, very dark final stroke to the script in the last act that is a borderline taboo shocker but let’s you know this Punisher isn’t fucking around. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

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