There have been three big-screen adaptions, a backdoor pilot (Daredevil Season 2), and two full Netflix seasons dedicated to, in my opinion, the greatest comic book vigilante ever created. Unfortunately all but one of these live-action attempts are complete failures. The one that pulled it off the closest is the one most normal fans crap on the most. That’s right, the 1989 version of The Punisher, with Dolph Lundgren.
The movie pulls it off for a simple reason. The story is very much a 1980s Punisher comic book story. The writers of the ’89 film understood the character better than anything that has come since. In this 1989 film, Frank Castle is not a drunken cry baby. He isn’t a comedy figure, and he isn’t… well, whatever that guy in the Netflix show was.
The movie starts 5 years after Frank’s family are killed in a car bomb meant for him. In the movie, Frank is an ex- NYPD detective about to close in on a mafia boss. The Mob boss ends up killing his wife and kids and Frank goes into hiding. He comes out as the vigilante known as the Punisher in the press. By the start of the movie, he has killed so many mafia mooks that this mob boss comes out of retirement to gather up the pieces of his empire using whoever is still alive after Frank’s rampage.
In true 1980s comic book fashion, this weakness leaves New York open for a takeover by the Japanese Yakuza. They quickly move in and start killing off the New York mob. Those they can’t convince to step away, they kidnap their children to force them to submit to Yakuza rule.
Of course, this brings out Frank to fight both the Italian mob and the Japanese mob, while saving the kids in the most violent and bloody ways he can manage.
A climactic assault on the Yakuza headquarters involves the death of several dozen Ninjas and assorted Japanese Yakuza as Frank paints the town red. Right at the end, there is a twist that is completely true to the character of Frank Castle.
Now, the movie isn’t perfect. Frank never puts on the skull shirt, even though the script called for it and the comic book adaption of the script has this as a deleted scene.
Almost as bad is that the background is changed. Frank is no longer a Vietnam war vet, just back from the war in time to see his family killed. I can live with these things now, but when the movie came out I was a VERY triggered comic book nerd.
The movie is a really great 1980s action film. Hell, it is a great Punisher film! The best, and most true, on-screen depiction in my opinion. Dolph looks the part and acts the part. This version of Castle is a dead-eyed machine, that possesses no self-doubt and is ready to die.
I have been buying The Punisher comics since the original 5 issue mini-series. It is very hard to satisfy me when it comes to a faithful adaption. You can trust me when I say the 1989 film is the best of them all if you want the closest thing to the 1980s and 1990s comic books.
The 2004 Thomas Jane version is trash. Punisher: WarZone is so bad it makes me ill with rage. The Netflix series makes me nostalgic for the awful Thomas Jane version even though I like Bernthal as an actor. When “The Punisher” doesn’t kill a child pornographer in season 2 of the Netflix series you know something is very wrong with the adaption from the streamer that brought you Cuties. The comic book Frank Castle would not have let that man live, and neither would the 1989 film version.
It is a straight-up 1980s revenge movie based on the greatest comic book character extant. Even if the comic book roots mean nothing to you, it is one hell of a vigilante revenge story.
There are two versions, the theatrical and a recent uncut Blu-ray release. Get the uncut one if you can.