The Punisher (1989) - Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was a good cop until the day that the mob blew up a car with his wife and two daughters inside. It has been assumed that Castle himself died in the explosion as well, but no one has ever been able to prove it, including his ex-partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.). Not long after Frank's disappearance, however, a vigilante known as The Punisher appeared on the scene and began a killing spree resulting in 125 dead members of the mob over a period of five years. Many people believe that Castle is The Punisher, but again, no one has been able to prove it. When the second in command of the mob is finally killed in an attack by the The Punisher, boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) must return to the United States from an extended vacation in Europe to take up the reins of his toppling organization. Not long after his return, Franco convinces the heads of the other four crime families to join forces with his, but their first job as a team goes awry when it is interrupted by a gang of Yakuza hitmen lead by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her daughter (Zoshka Mizak). Tanaka plans to take over leadership of the mob while they're in their weakened state, all thanks to The Punisher thinning out their ranks. Castle would be happy to stand by and let the mob and the Yakuza kill each other until he discovers some new information through his informant Shake (Barry Otto). When the mob bosses refused to cooperate with the Yakuza, Tanaka kidnapped all of their children to hold for ransom, which is not something that Frank, who lost his own daughters to rampant crime, is willing to let happen. Now The Punisher must take on the entire Yakuza army to save the children of the very men responsible for his own family's deaths. The original 1989 Punisher gets a ton of flak, but I'm not entirely sure why. I'm sure that some people are surprised to hear me say that, but it's true. I honestly don't think that this is a bad movie. Now don't get me wrong; there are certainly some problems with this film. In fact, let's take a look at those first, shall we? First of all, what is the first thing you think of when you hear "The Punisher"? If you've ever seen a comic book before, it should of course be a big, creepy white skull on a guy's chest. However, for some reason the people in charge of making the 1989 Punisher film felt the need to omit this from the character's design. This is like taking the "S" off of Superman's chest. The skull appears on the handle of The Punisher's knives in the film, which he often leaves stuck in the bad guys for the cops to find later, but aside from that the film is devoid of this symbol. I can't fathom why they did this, but you know, it doesn't really affect the film all that much. The other big thing that people fault this movie for is it's leading man: Dolph Lundgren. Now, I would be kidding myself if I said that he is a good actor, but if you can buy Arnold Schwarzenegger's performances in some of his earlier films, then you should certainly be able to deal with Lundgren in The Punisher. He really doesn't do much in the film aside from beating on people, shooting people, riding a motorcycle, and occasionally delivering a clever retort or pre-death catch phrase, all of which I think he managed with a worthy degree of believability. The real thing that I find odd about Frank Castle in this movie is that there are multiple scenes in which he is kneeling naked in his underground hideout. I'm not really sure what these scenes are supposed to signify, but I can deal with them. While I'm behind Lundgren's involvement in The Punisher, my real opposition to the casting lies mainly with the children in the film. None of these kids are even remotely close to good actors, and they provide the most laughably-delivered lines of anyone on the screen. Those characters aside, we have some very stereotypical representations of Japanese people and mobsters, but it is an eighties action movie after all. One character that I could take or leave is The Punisher's informant, Shake. He is a bum who gives Frank Castle intel on upcoming crimes in exchange for booze. He was obviously included as the comic relief of the film, but is thankfully not in it enough to dumb down the story. The action, for the most part, is standard eighties/early nineties fare with explosions and sub-par fight choreography in tow, which I won't fault the film for, because that's just when it came out. Now for the things that I liked. First off, The Punisher is an urban legend. He's been around for a while and has a mythic feel about him in this film. The same cannot be said for the more recent celluloid incarnation of the character. Second is the plot. I love the plot of this movie. The fact that Castle has to save the lives of his enemies' children is great. It also allowed for him to go up against some enemies who had an entirely different fighting style to his own. While brief, the fight between Frank and Lady Tanaka's daughter is really innovative in my opinion. I also enjoyed Louis Gossett Jr.'s character. He could have come off as a whiny sidekick, but instead was a badass himself. Finally, while the script was weak at some points, there were also some lines that make me smile with glee such as when Berkowitz asks, "What the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?", to which Frank replies, "A work in progress." Classic. While The Punisher will turn many people off based on Lundgren's involvement and it's technical inferiority in comparison to the newer installment of the franchise, this film still stands up for me as one of those great, mindless action films of the eighties. Watch it if you get a chance, and if you've seen the more recent film, try to look at it through the eyes of someone seeing it pre-Y2K.
The Punisher (2004) - Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is an undercover cop who has just completed his final operation before moving away with his wife and son to live out the rest of his life without fear of losing it in the line of duty. Unfortunately, during this final mission, one of mob boss Howard Saint's (John Travolta) sons was killed, which obviously doesn't please Saint or his beautiful wife Livia (Laura Harring) too much. On the day of her son's funeral Livia asks Howard to enact revenge on the man responsible for their loss, and what Livia wants, Livia gets. Recently free from duty, Frank is at a beach-side party with his entire family when Saint's lackeys show up, lead by his right hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton). After murdering every single member of Castle's family, despite his attempts to save them, Quentin and co. beat, shoot, and blow up Frank on a pier. Discovered washed up on the shore by a local man, Frank is revived with one thing on his mind: punishment. He relocates to Florida, where Howard Saint resides, and rents an apartment in a small, run down building where he sets up shop with an armored car and every type of weapon imaginable. As The Punisher, Frank methodically takes down every aspect of Saint's business, surviving every attack that is sent his way. Meanwhile, through interaction with his three new neighbors, Joan (Rebecca Romjin), Dave (Ben Foster), and Bumpo (John Pinette), Frank also begins to feel normal emotions again like trust and compassion. However, as his mission to ruin Howard Saint's life continues, The Punisher remains an unstoppable force of vengeance, forcing Saint to repeatedly up the ante. This time around The Punisher got a bigger budget, bigger stars, and bigger action sequences. Despite all this, the 2004 incarnation of The Punisher still didn't perform magnificently in theaters. Regardless, this is a pretty good movie. Thomas Jane is certainly a better actor than Dolph Lundgren was in the previous Punisher film, and this one also has a more noteworthy supporting cast. In fact, that's really what makes this movie. Based loosely on the Garth Ennis-penned "Welcome Back, Frank" story-line from the Punisher comic books, Jonathan Hensleigh's film borrows from the comic's wonderful cast of ancillary characters. Frank Castle's neighbors Joan, Dave, and Bumpo all have their origin's in Ennis' comics, as do villains Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and The Russian (Kevin Nash). Speaking of The Russian, his scene in this film is definitely the highlight of the movie. The overall tone of his fight with The Punisher carries over perfectly from the comic book and is way more fun and funny than a scene in a generic action movie has any right to be. As far as the rest of the villains go, John Travolta puts in a mediocre performance as Howard Saint. Honestly, I had a hard time believing that anyone would be afraid of him in this film. He just didn't scream badass to me. Harry Heck was only in the film very briefly, but puts in a rather decent performance in the time alloted to him. As far as the neighbors are concerned, they are all important and play their parts well. My only complaint would be that Rebecca Romjin was a little too beautiful to believably pull off the character of Joan (at least the way she was portrayed in the comic), but that's hardly something to worry about. On the topic of the differences between this version of the Punisher and the previous incarnation, there are many, but I'll go over a few important ones. First is the skull design. Unlike the Dolph Lundgren version it is all over this movie, which is good, but the origin of it is pretty damn stupid in my opinion. The filmmakers were trying to give the skull a deeper meaning than it has and, in my opinion, they managed only to make it slightly more stupid than if it were just a skull shirt that Castle ended up with. Next we have The Punisher's public appearance. In the Lundgren film The Punisher had been around for several years and was a bit of an urban legend, which I liked. In this film he walks right up to the front of a police station to announce his existence as soon as he rolls into town. I wasn't a big fan of this, primarily because it doesn't make sense. If you're going to go around killing a bunch of people, why not be secretive about it? Realistically, as soon as the first bad guy dropped dead, the cops would have been knocking down Frank's door, but then again, we are talking about a comic book movie here. This time around we got to see the deaths of Frank's family, which are on a much larger scale than in the original film, allowing the viewer to get into Frank's head a little more. This is good and bad in my opinion, because I liked all of the character development of The Punisher in this film, but also appreciated the mystery of him in the other. When you get right down to it, despite all of the differences between the 1989 and 2004 Punisher films, I like both of them on just about the same level. The 2004 version is absolutely the better movie, but both are quite worth a watch.