The Dolph Lundgren Punisher Movie Isn’t as Bad as You Remember

Back when the term ‘Marvel movie’ was practically an oxymoron, Frank Castle took his first shot at live-action glory.

Let me take you back to 1989, the year Tim Burton’s Batman came out in theaters and changed superhero cinema as we know it, and the year when Dolph Lundgren starred in a Punisher movie that didn’t even get released in America until 1991… and then everyone said that they hated it.

We all know that live-action superhero movies more or less drive the national economy now, but there was a time when they were very rare. There had only been one feature-length, theatrically-released Marvel superhero film in America before The Punisher came out, and that was Howard the Duck, a movie that actually is as bad as you remember.

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And for a long time, films like Howard the Duck were an albatross around Marvel’s neck. While the Batman movies were breaking box office records and selling tons of toys, all Marvel fans had were a bizarre duck movie, that weird DTV Captain America movie with the rubber ears, and the Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four which, to this day, has still never officially been released.

The Punisher got lumped in with those other disasters and became yet another black mark on Marvel’s permanent record, and that’s a shame because watching it today one sees that it stands head and shoulders above those other films. And not just because Dolph Lundgren is 6’5” tall.

The Punisher is one of Marvel’s most realistic superheroes. He’s basically what would happen if Charles Bronson from Death Wish crossed over into the Marvel Universe. Frank Castle’s family was murdered, so Frank went to war against crime, assembling an arsenal of weapons and using them to kill anyone he deems worthy of punishment.

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That storyline translates to the big screen very well because it’s already essentially a Hollywood revenge thriller. Lundgren plays Frank Castle here as a former cop who has murdered over 125 criminals since he became a vigilante. Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr. plays Frank’s ex-partner, Jake, who is trying to track Frank down and bring him back to sanity.

After his latest murder spree, Frank has weakened all the criminal families in the city, and for once he feels like he’s actually accomplished something. But his actions have consequences, and the power vacuum Frank has created is suddenly filled by the Yakuza, who kidnap the children of all the leftover crime bosses, use them as leverage to assume control of the city, and then decide to sell them into slavery anyway.

This puts Frank in a difficult position, forcing him to team up with a Mafioso, Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé from The Fugitive), a man he thoroughly intends to kill, in order to save innocent lives. It’s a pretty good set-up for a Punisher story, with Frank given plenty of opportunities to do what he does best, but also putting him in a position that challenges his otherwise unshakable moral code.

The Punisher was directed by Mark Goldblatt, who also edited genre classics like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Commando, and he’s packed it full of action. There are sweet car chases and bloody sieges and a scene where Lundgren fights a homicidal ballerina to the death. (It makes sense in context.) What the film lacks in flourish it makes up for in efficiency. The Punisher’s world isn’t as vibrant or chaotic as Batman’s. He’s just a soldier living in the sewer system, occasionally emerging to drag evildoers down to hell.

The film was written by Boaz Yakin, who would go on to write The Rookie and Now You See Me. He also directed Remember the Titans and the excellent Jason Statham thriller Safe. Yakin’s screenplay keeps The Punisher grounded in — more or less — reality. The villains are prone to outlandish murder, and The Punisher has an alcoholic Shakespearean snitch who rhymes (an awkward attempt to make his exposition interesting), but the premise is straightforward and plausible.

Watching this version of The Punisher today you have to wonder why, exactly, everyone turned on it. Dolph Lundgren isn’t the best actor ever, and the fact that it eventually went straight-to-video in America didn’t do much to raise expectations, but it’s not a particularly bad film. Many of its ideas and set pieces would stand up perfectly well against the acclaimed new Netflix version of the character, or at least what we’ve seen of him already.

But at the time, The Punisher was seen as a very bad adaptation largely because the details were all wrong. Frank Castle was suddenly a cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, which changed the character quite a bit, but also none of The Punisher’s popular villains made an appearance, or even any of his unpopular villains. And due to legal issues, the filmmakers weren’t even allowed to put Dolph Lundgren in the character’s trademark skull t-shirt.

The Punisher just didn’t feel like The Punisher anymore. You could’ve changed the protagonist’s name and called the movie practically anything else and gotten away with it. And if you did that the film would probably have a better reputation today, because The Punisher is a pretty good modestly-budgeted action movie. It just wasn’t what people wanted from the Marvel character.

Two Punisher movies later, neither of which was a hit but both of which have their fans, and after an acclaimed Netflix appearance, this version of The Punisher still languishes in relative obscurity. It’s not well-remembered, it’s rarely revisited, and as a result it’s still not very well liked after over 25 years. But give it a watch anyway. Many of the complaints we had back when The Punisher first came out no longer seem like a big deal (it took forever to get Jon Bernthal to wear that Punisher logo too). And now that the superhero genre no longer has anything to prove, we can finally appreciate this early misfire for what it did right, instead of focusing on the handful of things it got wrong.

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