Movie audiences today take super-hero films for granted. This year alone saw the release of five super-hero films, but in 1989, they were far more rare. Yet, here is the little film that could.
Filmed at the end of the first wave of Australian exploitation films (known as Ozploitation), The Punisher has the distinction of 91 on screen deaths (not including explosions killing people in buildings), and while Rambo III has the distinction of the most on-screen deaths of all time, 91 is nothing to sneeze at, especially since the Punisher uses such a wide variety of killing methods compared to Rambo’s comparatively tame methodology.
Many comic book fans complain that this movie doesn’t follow the source material, but I don’t read comic books, so my opinion over comic book movies actually matters because I’m the voice of John Q. Public. A comic book fan will watch a comic book movie just because it features a comic book character, but John Q. Public is more difficult to impress, and I was shocked to find that this film is absolute perfection.
A sort of spiritual successor to Showdown in Little Tokyo (SiLT), this film stars master thespian (and graduate in chemical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm) Dolph “Freaking” Lundgren as the Skull t-shirt wearing, Marvel Comics vigilante (sans skull shirt). Much like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Marlon Brando in The Men, Lundgren is a method actor who goes to great lengths to get into the head of the characters he portrays. For this film, he dyes his hair black.
Lundgren’s hair transformation is much more than a mere cosmetic choice. Muscular with golden locks of hair, Lundgren’s normal appearance begets the image of the Aryan Christ depicted in so many paintings. In this film, his black hair combined with his rugged facial hair that shapes a skull on his face makes Lundgren a new kind of Christ-figure; that of the avenging savior returning to Earth for the Rapture.
Furthering the Christ-like metaphor is the opening monologue where Frank Castle says, “Come on God, answer me. For years I’m asking why, why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment? Or have you already answered? Have you already said to the world here is justice, here is punishment, here, in me?” His prayers to God are an affirmation of his vengeance role in the universe. Here is an unsure Christ calling out to his father to ensure that this is right; that murdering evil is justice.
Much like SiLT, Lundgren’s enemies are Japanese Yakuza, and he has to kill them all indiscriminately. The Yakuza have kidnapped the children of prominent mafia members, and its up to the Punisher to save them by killing everyone.
But the film reaches new depths of . . . um . . . depth as the Punisher shouts, “I PUNISH THE GUILTY!” to which his homeless Shakespearean partner replies, “And as a result, the innocent must suffer?” The Punisher doesn’t give this another thought. Punishment affects the just and unjust alike, and he will continue his mission of sending the guilty to Hell even if it harms the innocent. While this dismissal of the moral implications of the film could be misconstrued as the film lacking in emotional depth, it is actually the very thing that provides emotional depth.
While some would decry the film as lacking subtext, these people simply aren’t looking for subtext in the right places. Director Mark Goldblatt is known for demanding subtlety from his actors (perhaps most notably in the “Mr. Chaney” of Eerie, Indiana), and he pulls out all the stops in this film. Though this may seem like just another action movie, it’s one that emphasizes authenticity. It is authentic in that Dolph Lundgren does all of his own stunts and in that the film avoids fight choreography and instead opts for the actors to make it up as they go along . . . and it shows.
You know how action movies have fight scenes that are dramatic, impressive, and visually stunning? That’s not by accident — that’s because people have choreographed the scenes for maximum effect. But because without fight choreography, it makes the viewer believe that this may actually be happening. Combine that with the natural acting gifts that Ludgren possesses, and it is the most natural movie to ever be created. It is as if a camera just followed Dolph Lundgren around as he got into slap fights with people and murdered them indiscriminately.
Perhaps most haunting of all is when we consider the authenticity alongside the Christ-metaphor. For all intents and purposes, this is what the Rapture will be like in the most realist sense imaginable. The realistic nature of the film mixed with the powerful symbolism of Christ the Redeemed.
Layers upon layers.
A rich tapestry of emotion and meaning.
This is the only way to describe The Punisher (1989).