Saturday, August 11, 2012

Above The Film's Adaptation Nation: The Punisher Part 1

Hello fans, friends, and true-believers. Months ago when I first joined this-here blog I had pitched a personal column of mine that I had planned on making a weekly contribution called Adaptation Nation. It was meant to take a look at films adapted from novels, comic-books, musicals, video games, and…well I think that’s all that really fits the bill…and how they stood in the world of film. Well, after one installment of A.N. it fell to wayside due to my inclusion in movie reviews, news, as well as personal engagements. I now bring to you, the first dark and gritty reboot of our own, in return Adaptation Nation to you. This will be a repost of the original article with it’s continuation to follow. So read up on the back story and first film attempt of Marvel Comic’s The Punisher after the break.

THE PUNISHER (Part 1 of 4)

Frank Castle, a former-Marine who served in Vietnam, comes home to NYC on leave. While spending his downtime in Central Park with his wife and two kids, Castle stumbles upon a mob execution. The entire family is gunned down, and all but Frank are killed. From that day forward, Frank Castle swore to dedicate his life to bring justice to all wrong doers as “The Punisher.”

Decked in his iconic Skull-chested outfit, white boots, and white gloves The Punisher was introduced to the world in the mid-70s originally as a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 seeking to punish Spidey for the supposed murder of Norman Osborne. The character was an instant hit with Marvel readers for his ruthless no-prisoners attitude and for being the most human of the Marvel Superheroes. After several more appearances with Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Captain America (as an ally this time) The Punisher finally got his own comic mini-series in the Mid-80s. The series officially cemented The Punisher’s back-story as described above. After this, The Punisher had a rather extensive run in The Marvel Universe through the late-80s and 1990s but as time went on interest in the comic waned and writers resorted to drastic measures to keep Frank interesting. One attempt was made to bring the character back to his roots in 1995 with a book titled Punisher:Year One set in the year after Frank’s family was murdered and his transformation into The Punisher. This however did not stem the tide of far-fetched attempts to make him new and different, which included making him the willing head of a crime family, as well as killing him and then resurrecting him as “a supernatural agent to both angels and demons.” (thank you Wikipedia for that description.) He honestly had bio-force guns that grew out of his forearms. Yes, it was terrible.

Marvel promptly ended The Punisher comics in 1999, but Frank Castle doesn’t go down without a fight. A year later The Punisher returned under Marvel’s new offshoot banner Marvel Knights (later renamed MAX) in a short series penned by Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hitman). The stories left the Marvel Universe and instead placed Frank in a more realistic New York, without superheroes, as he battled Mobsters, gang members, drug dealers, and the rest of the New York crime world. The Punisher got his dark and gritty reboot, and it saved both the character and the title. The white gloves and boots were gone, instead replaced with a more realistic t-shirt and trench coat look. Garth Ennis’s run of The Punisher was full of cursing, blood, gore, violence, nudity, and disturbing situations that cemented it as Marvel’s ultimate Mature Content title. As Ennis’s tenure as head-writer grew to a close Frank Castle was reintroduced to the major Marvel Universe during the over-arcing Civil War story spanning several titles for numerous issues reviving the popular mid-90s title Punisher: War Journal by writer Matt Fraction (Uncanny X-Men, The Invincible Iron Man). After 2 years on the title, Fraction departed from Frank’s story leaving it in the hands of Rick Remender (Fear Agent, Venom) who took Castle to a whole new level with his over-the-top concept of Franken-Castle. After battling the evil clone of Wolverine, The Punisher is killed and dismembered only to be brought back as a Frankenstein’s monster of justice. This series ran for 23 issues before Castle was returned to a normal human state (thank you, magic) and the series was then renewed with Greg Rucka (Action Comics, Detective Comics) as writer (I will touch on this series more in part 4.)

The MAX run of Punisher ended back in February of 2012 after a 22 issue run written by Jason Aaron, who had done highly-praised runs of both Ghost Rider and WolverineAaron’s story kept the same tone and quality of Ennis’s extended run, but introduced classic Punisher villains such as The Kingpin and Bullseye into this realistic world of Punisher MAX.

Now that you know just about everything about the comic series, it’s time to look at three separate attempts to bring Frank Castle to the big screen. This first article will focus on the first attempt in the late-80s.


Only three years after The Punisher’s first mini-series hit shelves film companies were already fighting to get this action hero into the theaters for all of the world to enjoy. Fresh off his run as Prince Adam/He-Man in yet another big-screen-adaptation of a comic book and popular cartoon, Masters of the Universe, Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, The Expendables) was cast to portray Frank Castle in New World Cinema’s The Punisher.

This Ozploitation (Australian Exploitation) version of The Punisher takes countless liberties with the story and characters due to it being an unlicensed version of the Marvel character. The film places Frank Castle as a former police officer who watches his wife and two daughters die in a car bombing meant to kill Frank as well. Several years later: Frank, now living in the sewers of this unnamed city, wages his one-man war against organized crime, while his old partner, Detective Berkowitz, played by Louis Gossitt Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman, Iron Eagle) and Berkowitz’s new partner Samantha Leary, played by Nancy Everhard (DeepStar Six, Everwood) attempt to capture him. Now known as The Punisher, (missing his signature white Skull due to legal issues) Castle moves in to take down a coalition of the biggest crime families in the city, but finds he may be in for more than he bargained for when The Yakuza come to town for a hostile takeover. When the bosses of all the major crime families refuse to give in to their demands, The Yakuza takes their kids for ransom, and only The Punisher can save them.

With the numerous changes made to the comic book origins and appearance of The Punisher this film also makes many changes to the style of Frank Castle. The Punisher comics were mostly popular due to their gritty depiction of a character without superpowers kicking in doors and spraying the room with the bullets. Adversely, this film’s version of The Punisher comes off as a less tech-savvy Batman with a more superhero approach to his work. Theatrically appearing out of the shadows, killing people quickly, whether it be stealth or loud and brutal, and disappearing again in yet another theatrical, and sometimes even humanly-impossible, style.

The movie does stick close to it’s violent comic book roots, however, with it’s exploitation-film style. One thing they got spot on is Frank Castle’s love for variety in his weapon choices, but sadly with changing his background and not making him ex-military one has to wonder where he gets all these weapons, especially his custom-made skull knives. The script is quite shoddy, full of ridiculous dialogue and exposition problems. Berkowitz’s history with Frank is delivered entirely in dialogue while he and Sam search the sewers for his hideout, it is never actually stated who killed Castle’s family or why, but only momentarily hinted that is was head mobster Gianni Franco, played by Jeroen Krabbe (007: The Living Daylights, The Fugitive.) Besides a few heads of the crime families and the lead of The Yakuza, no other villain in the movie is given a name, each actor is credited with a named character, but the names are never spoke on-screen. Reducing characters to descriptions when discussing the film, such as “Random, silent, white woman who is an assassin for The Yakuza and potentially deaf.” The script isn’t the only flaw in the film, most of the acting is quite terrible too, especially from our lead. Lundgren mumbles his way through the entire film, causing all of his lines to have to be dubbed-over during post-production, and delivered in a sub-par Sly Stallone impression. The film has a fan-terrible (fantastically terrible) quality to it that most 80’s and 90’s action films had. The thing of it is, that was exactly what the original run of The Punisher comic book was, a comic book version of an 80’s action movie.

When I first saw this film, I believe I was about six or seven and watched it ov TV with my older brother, and I loved it strictly because it was the character of The Punisher. As I got older, about 12 or 13, I grew to hate this film because of small and stupid reasons like the missing skull shirt, or his changed background. After watching it again, 10 years later, with a filmmaker’s perspective, as well as one with an appreciation for 80s action flicks, I love it all over again. Especially for its cheese-factor, personified in the character of Shake. Shake is The Punisher’s alcoholic, and potentially homeless, contact to the seedy criminal underworld who plays friend, accomplice, and sometimes Greek Choir to Frank throughout the film (even speaking in rhyme while pleading with Frank to save the mobsters’ kids.) For all of its faults, The Punisher is still fun in it’s own right, and a decent attempt at capturing what the original run of The Punisher comics were…except for the random shot of him meditating naked in the sewer they use… twice.

I give this one 2 out of 4 skulls.

Next time: We look at the gritty reboot inspired by the gritty reboot.

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