Monday, March 5, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Punisher" (1989) has Ivan Drago from Rocky IV killing people with bullets



With "The Avengers" not far off, and with plenty of people looking back at the films that have led up to this mighty, experimental team-up film, I thought I'd look back a little further and remind everyone that movies about Marvel Comics' characters were around waaay before the blockbusters of the last ten years. Unfortunately for Marvel, the movies that were made using their characters prior to the "Blade" and "X-Men" films were really cheap and often very, very terrible. Luckily enough for me (and you readers) one of my life's passions is watching cheap movies from a bygone era and making fun of them on the Internet.



For a variety of different reasons, I've been in a bit of a Punisher-type mood of late. It dawned on me that I really don't know all that much about him, beyond what I've seen of him n the Spider-Man animated series, as well as guest-appearances in other comics. His basic shtick is that he's a Vietnam vet-turned cop whose wife and children were murdered, so he becomes an angry gun-toting vigilante. This puts him at odds with most of the other characters from the Marvel Universe, for while most of them have vowed never to kill and others only doing so when absolutely necessary (like Wolverine), Frank Castle is a mass-murdering psychopath who lives to...well...punish those who would do evil, with bullets.




Everybody knows that there's been two movies based on The Punisher in the last decade, and that neither of them were that successful. Were they any good? I don't know. I haven't seen them. I've heard mixed reports from fans and critics, with many people saying that the first wasn't very close to the comics but that it was really sick and twisted. I've also heard that the second movie was closer to the comics but that it was even more sick and twisted. Naturally, I'm looking forward to watching both of them. But right now, we're not talking about either of those movies. We're talking about the low-budget movie from 1989, "The Punisher" starring B-list action hero and Rocky villain, Dolph Lundgren.



As you can well imagine, The Punisher works best when he's put in crazy 80s action movie stories. So naturally the original movie that was actually made about him in the 1980s would be awesome, right?

Well...I'd hasten to say that statement is 'wrong'. But that's the best thing I can really say. "The Punisher" is definitely not a big-budget actioner. It was shot in Australia, and this is painfully evident when minor characters are unable to do a proper imitation of the American accent. It only loosely bases itself off the actual comics character and even has the gall to strip him of his trademark skull-symbol that he wears on his chest.

But to say that "The Punisher" movie is not entertaining is a huge disservice to the movie. While it's fair to say the movie's a bit shabby in places, it's never boring. Unlike other Marvel B-Movies (which we'll get to in due time) there are no lumbering sequences of dialogue that flesh out the movie's run-time. Every scene is significant and paces the movie along nicely.



First off, while the action in the film is simplistic and low-key enough, the body-count is very, very high. This is a film in which many mobsters and even more ninjas are killed with bullets. One of my favourite scenes saw Frank get an elevator up to a whole room full of ninjas training in front of the elevator. Why would they place the dojo right in front of the elevator where they're just going to get completely bulleted in the face as soon as one of their enemies show up? Who cares. Many ninjas get killed swiftly with bullets.



Other cheesy action highlights of this movie include the Punisher's eradication of a vindicated mobster at the start of the film. Frank Castle stealthily kills all of his bodyguards (he hangs one of them, stabs another and I think he shoots the third guy) and then blows the whole fucking house up. And just to show that he's not dicking around, he actually walks outside and lets the news media (camped outside since the mobster was released from prison) see that it's definitely him, before he escapes as the house collapses. It's the best kind of awesome 80s destruction.



The movie stars Swedish-actor (and apparent chemical engineering graduate) Dolph Lundgren, most-famous as the guy who played Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV" (he's also He-Man in the "Masters of the Universe" movie, as well as Gunnar in the two "Expendables" movies). I'd probably say Lundgren himself is one of the highlights of the movie. Rather than making him a dashing, handsome hero, in this movie Frank Castle looks exhausted and beaten, physically and psychologically.


Looking physically imposing and very frightening at times; he's caked in sweat in every scene; he truly looks like a driven, psychologically-fractured vigilante. He's also got some pretty great dialogue in certain parts of the film. In the opening scenes, we hear Castle's internal monologue, where he's asking God for an answer as to what he's doing and whether His lack of an answer indicates an approval. In a later scene, a cop asks Castle what he thinks about The Punisher killing 125 people in 5 years, and Frank replies "A work in progress." It's clear to the viewer that Castle is a very sick man and he's never to be regarded as a traditional hero.

The movie deviates from the comics in a few considerable ways. The most aesthetically obvious is that Frank doesn't wear his skull chest-symbol that he wears in the comics (luckily enough, he still looks awesome in a black leather-jacket and steel-tipped biker boots).



Second is the introduction of original characters created for the film. Louis Gossett Jr. plays Officer Jake Berkowitz, a former associate and friend to Castle, before Frank's family were killed and he became the Punisher. In many ways, Jake is who grounds the film and firmly establishes that what Castle is doing is wrong. At the start of the movie, he's spent five years trying to track down the Punisher, unable to find anything other than the calling cards Punisher leaves behind (knives with skulls on the top of them; at least the movie found some use for the skull-symbol!). His new partner (played by Nancy Everhard) believes in Berkowitz's theory that the Punisher is Frank Castle, and she helps him out, using her Advanced Computer Skills OMG to track down Punisher's sewer headquarters (which is possibly the cleanest depiction of New York sewers I have seen in a film). Most of the Marvel B-Movies have original characters like this, and most of them fail because they give too much screentime to them and not to the titular character (or characters) of the movie. Luckily enough, Berkowitz and his partner's appearances are welcome and brief and the focus never lingers on them for too long.


The other original character is a classic 80s Dumbass Comedy Sidekick, on the more annoying end of the scale (played by deceptively Australian actor Barry Otto). The credits refer to him as "Shake", although I don't believe he's ever referred to that in the film. He's a homeless alcoholic and a failed actor, who acts as an informant for the Punisher in exchange for bottles of whiskey, which Frank delivers by way of miniature remote-controlled trucks (you heard me). Most of his dialogue is in rhyme as well, which is as infuriating as it sounds. This character really fails as there's no explanation given as to how a failed actor could have any success being engrossed in the activities of the criminal underworld. On top of that, his appearances detract from Frank's typical depiction as an unhinged killer. When Shake's around, he becomes an uncharacteristically human straight-man. "Shake" has no foundation in the comics and offers nothing to this movie. His character isn't even given a fitting ending, he just sort of sneaks off in the third-act.


The villains of the film are the generic white-collar Italian crime bosses (although there are a bunch of Yakuza as well) that appear in every single film made in the decade of the 1980s and unsurprisingly enough, they provide the foundation for the plot. In the wake of The Punisher's systematic eradication of organised crime, Gianni Franco (played by former Bond-villain Jeroen Krabbé, who is not Italian) manages to get all of the competing Mafia crime families to combine for the sake of higher profits. Unfortunately, the Yakuza step in and want complete control, and kidnap the children of the different crime bosses. This leaves The Punisher with an interesting moral dilemma; his actions have put the innocent lives of children in danger. Should he save the children of his enemies, or let them die so that the mob can suffer more? No prizes for guessing what he does.


Don't get me wrong, "The Punisher" is a bad movie in most respects. But it's the best kind of bad movie. There's some terrific (if ridiculous) shoot-outs, plenty of blood and badassery and you even care for some (though not all) of the characters. While the movie is technically impaired by horrific acting and cheap sets (I LOVE Franco's shite excuse for a secret meeting room, with an automatic door that's trying to look like something from a Bond movie), this only serves to enhance the cheesy joy that makes "The Punisher" work. I went into this movie with little or no expectations and I was rewarded greatly. "The Punisher" is a silly, bloody, marvelous B-movie romp that never fails to be entertaining.



Unfortunately, that's something I can't say about most of the other B-Movie Marvels I'll be reviewing over the next few weeks...

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