Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Our newest find on the Rack: the largely forgotten ‘80s action schlock-fest, The Punisher!
Cinema in the ‘80s was defined by gun-toting, muscle-bound action stars in the same way that it is by comic book movies today. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris… THESE were the superheroes of the Reagan era—rugged, uncompromising individualists who got things done where systems or bureaucracies failed, who could single handedly met out justice with their fists… or in a barrage of bullets. Like superheroes, they largely functioned as wish-fulfillment empowerment fantasies… but UNLIKE superheroes, they lacked any sort of ideological or moral underpinnings (save, perhaps, that old American standby of “individual exceptionalism trumps all”), and the machismo-driven, firearm-fetishizing worldview they reinforced is more than a little “problematic”1. Still, they were bigger-than-life figures who dominated the screen for a generation… so it makes sense that, when Marvel first tried to break onto the big screen in the late ‘80s, they would try to warp their first effort into the shape of those cinematic titans.
… Or rather, they would choose a character who already fit the mold.
Frank Castle is not a superhero. Oh, sure, he kinda LOOKS like one—in his classic skintight black jumpsuit with the ridiculous white gloves and boots, and the gigantic skull logo, the teeth of which brilliantly merge into a row of long white pouches on the front of his belt. He even has a cool superhero name: “the Punisher”. But when you look at his militant M.O., his taste for high-powered assault weapons and similar deadly armaments as weapons, his lack of superpowers, willingness to kill, and the complete absence of any kind of moral ideology in his make-up (aside from “bad people need to die”), the picture starts to get a little clearer. Frank Castle is a vigilante at the absolute best, and a goddamn homicidal maniac at worst—Jason Voorhees by way of Batman. The only thing that pushes him into the category of “hero” is the fact that he only kills criminals.
No, Frank isn’t much of a superhero… but if you just took off that ridiculous costume, New World Pictures reasoned, then maybe he could pass as an action hero.
With that idea clearly in mind, they set out to make 1989’s action schlock gem, The Punisher. Written by Boaz Yakin (screenwriter of The Rookie and Now You See Me, and director of Remember the Titans[!]) and directed by Mark Goldblatt (Academy Award-nominated editor of friggin’ Terminator 2: Judgment Day!), the film follows Castle as he wages his one-man war on crime. Believed dead after a car bombing that killed his wife and daughters, he has spent the last five years assassinating Mafia goons from the shadows—125 of ‘em, in fact. A retired Mafia don, Gianni Franco, returns to the city with plans to unite what’s left of the families… but just as he makes his move, the goddamn Yakuza shows up and makes their own play for power—kidnapping the children of the dons to force their surrender. Suddenly Frank has to deal with the consequences of his murder-spree and the power struggle to follow… and he has to decide whether his vendetta is more important than the innocent lives jeopardized by his actions.
And embodying this potential cinematic powerhouse? None other than Ivan Drago himself, Dolph Lundgren!
IN THIS ISSUE: Action! Gunplay! Mobsters! Ninjas! Subtextual racism! Overt racism! What else could you possibly want? (Well… maybe a bit less of those last two.)
The Punisher is your standard low-to-mid-budget action flick from the period: lots of practical stuntwork, gunfights (complete with stock gunfire sound effects), moderate vehicle stunts, and a fair number of explosions. The script is actually pretty tight, overall—told in broad strokes, sure, but the plot is (mostly) cohesive. Mark Goldblatt’s direction is unremarkable but competent, and the editing gives the film a propulsive energy, keeping things moving (the movie clocks in at a lightning-fast 89 minutes, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome).
Dolph Lundgren is absolutely perfect in the role of Frank Castle… that is, for any scene in which he doesn’t have to talk. The half-lidden, dead-eyed look on his face really does sell this character as a man who’s lost everything, who’s riding the ragged edge of exhaustion and depression at pretty much all times… someone who really doesn’t have much to live for. And in the action sequences, Lundgren exudes a lumbering, brutish power common in action stars of the time—his graceless hand-to-hand combat balanced by smooth speed and efficiency when taking aim with a shotgun. But whenever Frank opens his mouth, Lundgren is undone by both his croaky, mumbling delivery, and by the script itself, which has Frank inappropriately blurting out terrible quips and nonsensical one-liners at exactly the wrong times.
The Punisher of this film is a bizarre amalgam of details and tropes lifted from other successful action heroes. He wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle, like the Terminator; he carries an enormous gun complete with ammo belts, like Rambo; and most glaringly, he cracks jokes and makes pop culture references like John McClane. But the original touches added to the character are even stranger. Frank uses a remote controlled toy truck towing a bottle of booze to lure his informant, Shake (Barry Otto2), into an alley to meet; he opens and closes the film meditating naked at a candle-lit shrine; and to replace the skull-logo missing on Lundgren’s all-black-leather costume, Frank’s signature weapon is established early on to be a skull-handled knife… which seems like kind of an odd choice for a character who’s never been drawn without a gun in his hand.
But something that’s interesting here is just how badly it seems the movie wants to frame Frank Castle as a capital-H “Hero”. The film jumps through absurd hoops to put him into as morally praiseworthy a position as possible: throwing him up against extremely broad, inhumanly evil villains (more on that to come), while creating a clear heroic objective that directly contravenes any suggestion of vindictiveness or sadism on the part of the Punisher’s mission. The set-up with the kidnapped children immediately forces Frank to forego his cold, calculated killing spree in favor of a rescue operation; in act two, Frank has a moment of warmth comforting a frightened little girl (made just a little absurd by the fact that he’s dressed all in black leather and hefting a submachine gun) just before he leads a caravan of kids onto a bus to drive them off to safety. It’s schmaltzy and calculated, and it gets worse.
Captured by Franco, the one don whose son, Tommy, is still held by the Yakuza, Frank is forced to team up with his arch-enemy to infiltrate the Yakuza compound and save the boy. Frank initially declares that he’s still gonna kill Franco when all is said and done, but the two fight their way through the compound, saving each others’ asses and working well as a team… and then by the end, when the Yakuza head Lady Tanaka is dead and the coast is clear, Franco forces Castle’s hand by betraying- and trying to immediately kill him. Franco brags about how he’s going to consolidate his criminal empire and leave it all to his son; the two have a struggle, and of course Franco is killed… right in front of his Tommy. As Frank starts to walk away, the kid picks up the gun and levels it at Frank, who encourages him to shoot (“Maybe if you get it over with now, you won’t grow up to be like him”). After a tense moment, the boy drops the gun, sobbing, unable to shoot, and Frank leaves him with these words: “You’re a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. Because if not… I’ll be waiting.”
There’s some fascinating subtext going on here. By killing Franco, the movie argues, Castle has eliminated what would have been a corrupting influence on Tommy. The boy WILL grow up to be a good man now, because his father won’t be there to push him towards crime. This retroactively frames EVERY ACT OF MURDER the Punisher commits as a heroic one—he’s not just killing off individual criminals, he’s protecting future generations from the continued influence of organized crime. He’s making the world a better place!
To further cement the Punisher’s moral high ground, the central villains of the movie are the nigh-mythological Japanese super-Mafia, the Yakuza. This film was created at a time when Japan was becoming an increasingly predominant force in business and industry, dominating fields that Americans had thought of as their own (automotive production, consumer electronics). Consequently, The Punisher‘s main plotline revolves around a “hostile takeover” of organized crime by the Japanese, who are presented as both hyper-capable models of criminal efficiency and as cold, dehumanized monsters cruelly exploiting the weaknesses of decent, hardworking American gangsters (see what I meant about the subtextual racism?). The film fetishizes Japanese art and broad cultural trappings like a lot of movies at the time (their penthouse lair looks like a dojo, for some reason), but it also denies any of them a voice—the only Japanese character who speaks is Lady Tanaka herself (Kim Miyori), a monstrous and sadistic woman with no redeeming human characteristics whatsoever.
… Also, they’re all ninjas. Because of COURSE they’re all ninjas.
But at least the Yakuza aren’t the ONLY ones who fall into broad stereotypes. The Mafia mooks who get their asses handed to them by the Yakuza are, by and large, big dumb gangland caricatures themselves. This is a movie that leans heavily on “types” for the villains… mostly because the lot of them end up dead anyway. In the end, it’s the supporting players that bring the movie a measure of depth.
Louis Gossett Jr., not long from an Oscar win for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, gives this movie his ALL as Frank’s former partner Jake Berkowitz. Of all the characters in the movie, Berkowitz comes off as the most human—a recovered alcoholic trying to track down his lost friend and help to pull him away from the darkness. It’s a largely thankless role, serving only to give Frank both a dedicated Javert to track him down and a single human connection to his life before the Punisher… but man, Gossett Jr. breathes life into this part, giving the film an emotional anchor and knocking its most powerful dramatic scene out of the park (see “Favorite Bits”, below).
Then you have Jeroen Krabbé as the returning mob don Gianni Franco. Krabbé may be the only guy who’s underplaying his part; keeping a cool, disconnected professionalism for most of the movie and going about his Mafia business as if it were just that: business. But—get this—Franco actually has a dinemsion: he’s an absolutely dedicated father, and all of his scenes with his boy Tommy bring out the warmth and emotion that he’s managed to cut out of every other part of his life. Furthermore, he SEEMS to be an “honorable” man: when he teams with the Punisher, he demonstrates respect for the man and his motives, and they even have a moment or two of tentative bonding (“You know, there’s a limit to revenge”). In fact, the biggest reason he gives for betraying Frank in the end… is to protect his son from him in the future. It’s a surprisingly nuanced character.
Lastly, there’s Barry Otto’s drunken actor/informant/comic relief, Shake. The character’s incessant rhyming can be a bit grating, but Otto makes for a charming loser. At one point, he ends up becoming the mouthpiece for Frank’s conscience, as he points out that the kidnapped children are only in danger because Frank weakened the mob to the point that they couldn’t protect their own children; it adds some depth and likeability to the character as we see him pushing Frank to do GOOD rather than just extinguishing evil, and he actually joins in on two missions, putting his money where his mouth is and trying to help however he can.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Brisk, entertaining, and over-the-top, The Punisher is action schlock at its finest. Of course, it largely ignores the character’s comic book roots and leans heavily into stereotyping, but it also boasts some solid character performances, great action, and just enough humanity simmering under the surface to keep you engaged. If you can just keep your mind off of how problematic it all is, there’s dumb fun to be had.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $1.00 (A Must-Buy!)
- Casino Nights: The Punisher becomes the first superhero in Discount Spinner Rack history to make an entrance through a skylight as he smashes his way into a Yakuza-run casino. He soon demolishes the slot machines, roulette wheel, and fully-stocked bar with an M-60 and a grenade launcher—a moment shamelessly ripped off from Rambo: First Blood Part II.
- Credit where it’s due: I’m a sucker for a good opening credits sequence, and this film’s vaguely Bond-flavored intro—in which we ride down a telescoping target of colorful crime-themed stock photos, until the Punisher gets to blow away some still photos of criminal stereotypes that explode into glass—is a pretty great one. Making it all the better is Dennis Dreith’s wonderfully frantic, anxious score, which builds the tension as we ride along to the end of the line…
- “Hey, man—I got the pizza!”: Berkowitz, having disarmed a goon holding him hostage, starts walking out the door when he runs into ANOTHER goon coming in the other way with a large pizza box. Without hesitation, Berkowitz SMASHES the pizza into the guy’s face and punches him in the gut… but once the goon’s down, Berkowitz bends down and grabs a slice of floor-pizza, moseying out with it in his mouth. It’s a stupid moment, but the timing and delivery (heh) of it is hilarious.
- “Let me in!”: A genuinely tense confrontation between Frank and Berkowitz in Frank’s cell. Louis Gossett Jr. STEAMROLLS over Lundgren in this scene, in which a stunned and overwhelmed Berkowitz confronts Castle with his actions, with his lack of faith in his friend, and with the fact that he’s facing the electric chair, before finally exploding at him. It also has probably the best dialogue exchange in the whole movie:
“Then what the hell do you call 125 murders in five years?”
“… Work in progress.”
- Hail to the bus driver: On his way to rescue the kidnapped children, Frank slips onto a city bus and makes away with it while the driver is on break. A lone, drunken passenger, not realizing what’s happened, screams at Frank that they’ve missed his stop, so the Punisher pulls over to let the man off… and even gives the man a transfer slip!
NEXT TIME: After a one-week hiatus, the Discount Spinner Rack will return to take a look at the first-ever comic book movie starring an African-American superhero3, beating out Steel by a matter of weeks: the MTV-flavored supernatural action flick, Spawn!