Back in the late 1980s, The Punisher was part of that period’s comic book movie wave. Most of these films had little to do with Batman’s success and most of them failed, both commercially and artistically. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course, succeeded financially. Watching this Punisher film (I have no interest in the new one) again–I’ve seen it multiple times, as the teenager looking for the action film where cars inexplicably blow up, and again as an adult, when it came out on DVD–I noticed just how much of it did succeed. The key to The Punisher is forgiveness. One has to forgive the bad opening credits (with tinted action shots from the film), the direction, and the music. Once those three factors are forgiven, and the viewer can accept the film as a 1980s action film, The Punisher can offer a lot… really. Well, at the least, it can offer quite a bit.
Director Mark Goldblatt edited a number of 1980s action films–The Terminator and Commando–and The Punisher is a well-edited action film. It’s Goldblatt’s direction. He doesn’t know how to frame a shot, doesn’t know how to move a camera, doesn’t know how to direct actors. His previous directing experience including second-unit work on Robocop and it shows in The Terminator. There are some very Robocop-influenced shots in the film… The lack of good framing hurts The Punisher the most (except the terrible score), since there’s only one bad principal performance–Nancy Everhard is way too spunky. The rest of the performances are good. Jeroen Krabbé is particularly excellent in the film–oh, another problem with the film, though it’s not really its fault–the costumes, bad 1980s jackets and such. Sorry. Krabbé wears a terrible denim jacket at the end and I couldn’t let it go. But anyway, he’s great as the crime boss. Louis Gossett Jr. is great as well, as the Punisher’s old partner. As for Dolph… Dolph’s pretty good. He’s not great (his accent breaks in at a few inopportune moments), but he’s got a few great scenes in the film, particularly when he’s working with kids and he and Gossett have a good scene together. He also manages to deliver the Punisher sound bites well.
There’s a certain amount of right-headedness working for the film. The wrong-headedness, which runs rampant of course, includes the Punisher running around with Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. It looks really silly. The film works because of the writing. Boaz Yakin has probably dropped the credit from his filmography (maybe not though, I mean, Dirty Dancing 2 is on there), but it’s a well-constructed script. The film moves fast (though it’s not particularly engaging for much of the middle), slowing down for the occasional action sequence, but Yakin gives the characters some meat, particularly Gossett’s. He lets Gossett tell a character-defining story, a device I always like. Given how much Garth Ennis’s relatively recent (three years?) handling of the Punisher character has changed my view of the character, its limits and its possibilities, Yakin does a great job. The film puts the Punisher alone a lot, something comic book movies have never been comfortable doing, and it works out. Lundgren does make some silly expressions, but the emphasis (and his performance) work out, overall.
There are fifteen more minutes of The Punisher out there (I always expected a special edition DVD to tie-in to the recent adaptation, but it never happened) and they might be what the film needs–more scenes without guns. The film’s a difficult proposition in the first place and the handling of it, given its era and the budget and the cast and crew, has a lot of problems. So its relative successes become prominent. They make it a memorable film, which is odd–remembering a Dolph Lundgren film because it works… to a degree.