Based on the Marvel comics character, THE PUNISHER is genuinely comic book-like, rather than cartoonish. The decor is stylized, the villains vile and broadly drawn, the protagonist--like many newer crime fighters--haunted and nearly psychotic.
Former police officer Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren), whose wife and children fell victim to a car bomb planted by sleek Mafia capo Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe), has been officially dead for five years. But those who knew him best, including his former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr.), suspect the truth is far worse. A mysterious figure calling himself the Punisher has been "whacking off wiseguys like he's got a hunting licence," 125 by last count. Berkowitz is right. Unhinged by the murder of his family, Castle has taken up residence in the sewers and made himself over into a
tormented killing machine who talks to God and lives by the motto "The guilty will be punished."
Franco returns to town to fill the void left by the Punisher's depredations. His plan: to unite all the warring Mafia families and tackle the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), whose leader, Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), is a china doll with a fetishist's wardrobe and hoards of martial-arts-trained minions at her command. Tanaka retaliates by kidnapping mafia sons and daughters, including Franco's son Tommy (Brian Rooney). Haunted by the thought that his vendetta against the Mafia has, however indirectly, led to the plight of these innocent children, the Punisher invades the Yakuza stronghold and rescues them. Tommy is accidentally left behind, and the operation leads to the Punisher's capture.
Desperate for the return of his son, Franco breaks the Punisher out of custody and persuades him to go back for the boy. Together Franco and the Punisher slaughter dozens of Lady Tanaka's minions. The Punisher kills her, and Franco turns on him; in the ensuing struggle, Franco is killed. Tommy grabs his father's gun and threatens to shoot the Punisher, but is unable to pull the trigger. "You're a good boy, Tommy," intones the Punisher. "Grow up to be a good man. Because if not, I'll be waiting." He escapes, disappearing back into the sewers.
The Punisher is a troubled and troubling character, judge, jury and executioner with a puritanical streak as wide as his shoulders. When he shoots up an after-hours club, the liquor bottles and slot machines take as many bullets as the pimps and murderers. Even the new, scary Batman is the alter-ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne, who manages to maintain a semblance of normal life when he hangs up his costume. But the Punisher is a monster created out of the ashes of Frank Castle--he's pure vengeance made flesh. The legacy of film noir is evident in such comics as The Dark Knight, in
which Frank Miller reimagined the caped crusader as a tortured sociopath, and filters back to THE PUNISHER with effective results.
Lundgren, an inexpressive actor, is perfect as a graphic cipher: his face was made to be drawn in ink and filled in with broad washes of color. Carefully tended facial stubble trimmed to give him a skull-like appearance, Lundgren is truly impressive as a character defined by emotional emptiness.
Even his voice sounds hollow. Many Punisher fans were apparently put off by the fact that Lundgren rejected the character's trademark skull tee-shirt in favor of all-black drag, but he's nothing if not faithful to the character.
Made in 1987, THE PUNISHER was never released theatrically in the United States and was a hot bootleg video commodity before being released on commercial video cassette in 1991. (Excessive violence, profanity.)
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