Rewind

The Punisher (1989) review: A worse origin story than X-Men Origins: Wolverine

It should have been a classic '80s thriller, but this Punisher packs no punch.

The Punisher has always been a complicated character in the Marvel Universe.

Introduced in 1974, Frank Castle was a Vietnam War veteran and U.S. Marine whose family was murdered by the mob. PTSD caused Castle to turn vigilante and start murdering bad guys while sporting a giant-ass skull on his shirt. A very subtle message.

The Punisher is an anti-hero who kills villains, but he doesn’t like costumed heroes, either. In his first appearance, he tries to murder our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man — and not in a fun way. Deadpool, he is not.

I didn’t know much about the 1989 Punisher movie, but I knew it had a following. I expected to see intense action scenes, big guns, and explosions. Eighties action movies are usually ridiculously extreme, but even when they’re not great, they can be wildly entertaining for their hilarious excessiveness. And my inner child enjoys giant guns and ass-kicking as much as the next person. I figured it might not be a high-quality film, but there would fun fight scenes at the very least. Oh, Punisher. How you have wronged me.

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Punisher opens with the prison release of an Italian-American crime boss whose mob was responsible for the murder of Frank Castle’s family.

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Castle is likewise assumed dead even though his remains haven’t been found. Guys, rule number one of action movies: never assume a dude is dead unless there’s a body.

Castle is indeed alive and he is pissed. Since his family was killed, Castle has taken up the vigilante mantle of The Punisher. Sort of. It’s just a leather jacket. Notably missing is the infamous Punisher skull. I’m already disappointed.

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Frank Castle is played by Sweedish actor Dolph Lundgren, whose '80s movie contracts always require semi-nudity.

Left to right: Masters of the Universe, Red Scorpion, and Rocky IVCanon Films, Amsell Entertainment, and MGM

Don't worry, he gets the same treatment here, too.

In the five years since his family’s murder, Castle embarked on a mass mob murdering spree, wracking up a total of 125 kills. With one more mafia guy out of prison, it’s time to score a few more kill points. Castle breaks into the mob boss’s house and violently picks off his goons one by one before blowing up the house.

This scene is actually quite fun to watch. It’s like Home Alone, but more murder-y. Unfortunately, this will be the most entertaining action scene in the movie.

Castle is no longer a former Marine for this film. He’s just an ex-police officer, which I do think takes away from the character. Given when the movie was released, it would be the ideal time to explore his psyche and Vietnam-related PTSD.

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Meanwhile, Castle’s former police partner is still on the force and trying to apprehend the Punisher.

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He’s tracking the Punisher’s movements through the ingenious strategy of red pins.

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And apparently, the Punisher always leaves a “calling card” — a giant knife and a bunch of shells.

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That’s not a calling card, that’s litter. Does Castle really leave a huge knife at every kill scene? The Wet Bandits had a better calling card than this guy. It was stupid, but at least it was memorable.

We then learn that Castle now lives down in the sewer. Where he likes to sit naked with lit candles. Ew.

You have no idea how much I had to crop this photo for publication.New World Pictures

Why do comics glamorize living in the sewer? And it’s always the most spacious and cleanest of sewers with no sign of actual...sewage. I blame Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Because Castle has weakened their ranks, the local mafia has attracted the attention of a Japanese crime syndicate — led by Lady Tanaka — who wants to initiate a hostile takeover.

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When the Mafia leaders refuse, Tanaka kidnaps their children to sell them into slavery. Eighties gangsters do not screw around.

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Castle’s informant for local mob intel is a drunken ex-actor named “Shake.” Because Shakespeare! And he’s a drunk! I can just imagine the writers congratulating each other for this brilliant witticism.

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We don’t know how Shake has access to all this information — he just does. And Castle exploits his alcoholism by bribing him with booze. Shake also tells Castle he needs to rescue the mob leaders’ children since it’s technically his fault that the kids were taken.

Castle hates the Mafia but doesn’t fault the children for belonging to crappy parents. So, he rescues them — by bus, of course.

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The kids are saved, but Castle missed one. The Japanese gangsters still have the big boss's son. So Big Boss Franco forces Castle to get his son after kidnapping Castle’s ex-partner.

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This story has been ungodly dull for the last hour, but seeing this mafia guy with a pizza getting punched in the face woke me up.

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No, not the pizza!! That’s New York style!

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Oh, good. He got a slice.

Castle finds Little Franco and kills Tanaka via a knife in the head, interrupting her evil laugh.

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But Castle still wants Daddy Franco dead (and to be fair, Franco doesn’t want Castle alive, either). So he kills him right in front of Little Franco.

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Congratulations, Frank, you’ve created a new supervillain!

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The movie ends with Castle retreating to his sewer to get naked and light some candles.

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The Punisher supposedly has a cult following, but I don’t understand it. I wouldn’t classify this as awesomely thrilling or hilarious. Films like Commando or Predator aren’t cinematic masterpieces, but they have fun action scenes with giant explosions and memorable dialogue. Unlike those movies, this one lacks any compelling plot. This movie dragged. It’s only an hour and a half, but it felt so much longer. I shouldn’t be checking the time and groaning when we haven’t hit the 60-minute mark.

And the Punisher himself is an amazingly complex character in the comics. Here, he’s reduced to a two-dimensional action figure with no depth or exploration. The real punishment from this movie is how agonizingly uninteresting it is from start to finish.

REWIND is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten performances we love.

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