Call me crazy if it makes you feel better, but director Mark Goldblatt's 1989 balls-out action masterpiece The Punisher is probably one of the strongest comic book adaptations I've seen in my short time upon this earth. Unlike Jonathan Hensleigh's glossy 2004 effort of the same name, Goldblatt's version of the source material is dark, dreary, and stuffed like ravioli with so much graphic violence that it borders on sensory overload. And while each film has its own unique stable of quirks and flaws, I'm of the unpopular belief that Boaz Yakin's script captures the spirit of Frank Castle's mission to deliver unsanitized justice to the criminal population much better than its more recent counterpart. There's not a popsicle to be found in this flick, dear readers.
Just lots of huge guns and hundreds of empty shell casings. Awww, yeah.
Besides, any film that features the charismatically bankrupt John Travolta as the primary villain isn't going to get high marks on its cinematic report card. Though he's capable of delivering quality performances when a good script and a competent director are in perfect alignment, Travolta doesn't possess the kind of sinister demeanor required to accurately portray a modern-day action bad guy. Travolta is just way too soft and goofy to be anything other than a mildly entertaining comedic actor who occasionally turns in a performance that doesn't make you want to jab at your eyes with sharp objects. Broken Arrow, anyone? That's what I thought.
With The Punisher, action hero Dolph Lundgren tackles the role of the mysterious Frank Castle, a former cop who spends most of his time dwelling in smelly sewers after his entire family is brutally butchered in a car bomb attack. Since everyone believes that ol' Frank died right alongside his wife and kids in the explosion, our hero has the luxury of slinking around the city as a sort of urban legend, a gun-toting spectre who dispatches the local mob population with all the sensitivity of a rusty thumb tack. In the span of roughly five years, Mr. Castle has amassed a grotesque collection of dead bodies totaling in the hundreds. And despite the best efforts of his former partner (Louis Gossett, Jr.), he continues to dish out his own unique brand of street justice.
Unbeknownst to Frank, his neverending quest to squash New York City's underworld has left its leaders vulnerable to attack from a squadron of sinister Yakuza types who are looking to leave their mark on the local drug trade. Their strategy: kidnap the children of the remaining crime lords and hold them for ransom. Feeling more than a little guilty for indirectly thrusting these innocent kids into harm's way, Frank decides to kill two little birdies with one enormous semi-automatic stone. Can this self-proclaimed army of one rescue the children and eliminate the Yakuza without getting himself obliterated in the process?
As a fan of the comic book, I will readily admit to anyone with a conflicting opinion of Mark Goldblatt's superior adaptation that neither film accurately captures the look and overall feel of the source material. That said, the 1989 film version does retain The Punisher's penchant for blood-soaked, bullet-ridden revenge. For the misguided 2004 effort, Hensleigh turned Castle into a whiny punk, a phony fire hydrant-carrying slice of soggy bread, thus robbing the character of any intensity he might have had. Good job, buddy. You're so super cool.
Here's another bold statement that may result in more than a few pieces of poorly-worded hate mail: Dolph Lundgren is superior to Thomas Jane in almost every way possible. It's true! Watching Jane portray Frank Castle, you never get the feeling that he really misses his family; his limp-wristed revenge plot seems almost forced, as if taking down those responsible for the death of his loved ones is a bothersome obligation to be dealt with in his spare time. Lundgren, meanwhile, seems eternally tormented by his memories, emotionally tortured by this sense of justice he feels he must dispense. It's an impressive performance, for sure.
Finally, Goldblatt's interpretation of The Punisher has been coated from top to bottom with an inky black slime and laced with several impressive action set pieces. From a seaside shoot-out to a thrilling climax inside the Yakuza's New York City digs, the veteran editor has filled his snazzy picture with an interesting assortment of nifty comic book violence. Of course, his version was lensed in the late '80s, an era wrought with visceral genre fodder that didn't shy away from oh-so-graphic bloodletting. Even if you dismiss this title as a faithful adaptation, you can't deny its ability to shock and awe. Low budget action flicks are rarely this engaging.