Although the authorities refuse to admit it, there are strong rumours that ex-cop Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) is not as dead as the media were told five years ago. This is confirmed when the suspected murderer of gangsters, the type of people who killed his family and supposedly killed him as well, makes an appearance in plain view. How does this state of affairs come about? It occurs when a Mafia boss is released from prison, the same one who reputedly ordered Castle's death although he denies all knowledge, and when he reaches home his henchmen are killed off by a shadowy figure, leaving the mob boss dead and his mansion blown up. Make no mistake: The Punisher is here.
This initial movie version of the Marvel Comics character was presumably intended to start a franchise, something to tide star Lundgren over as the eighties turned to the nineties, but tastes were changing in the action genre and the musclebound heroes of such efforts were growing less popular outside of the straight to video niche markets. Of course, this might have been a hit if its production company, New World, hadn't collapsed into bankruptcy around the time it was meant to be released, leaving it not even reaching American theatres, and only doing limited business elsewhere. Odd, considering the character seemed perfect for the shoot-'em-up stylings of the movies.
Fans who saw it wondered why The Punisher didn't have his trademark skull on his shirt, with explanations ranging from Lundgren not wanting to look silly to Marvel withholding the anti-hero's appearance from the comics because they wanted to use him in a bigger budget presentation, something which came to pass a few years later when Thomas Jane took up the mantle, but with a very faded skull on his shirt for reasons best known to the filmmakers. Even Ray Stevenson's skull emblem was pretty wan-looking in Punisher: War Zone, so no matter how cool the fans thought it would look, those pulling the strings apparently felt that it was something their masterpieces could do without.
Anyway, this original movie was shot in Australia and did little to rise above the workmanlike kind of films that it so easily compared to: all very easy to watch, but not too engaging otherwise. There's a sense of doing the best with what they had to operate with here, so the levels of professionalism are fair, but aside from the odd lunacy such as Castle riding his motorbike through the sewers (how did he get it down there? A really big flush?) this was strictly business as usual for your eighties action followers. Castle does employ a variety of methods to dispatch the bad guys, but mostly resorts to blowing them away with a very big gun or placing a knife between their shoulder blades.
The plot concerns The Punisher's plan to off the last of the Mafia crime family who killed his loved ones being derailed when The Yakuza appear on the scene and tell everyone that they're the new big men around town - and women, as their leader, Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) is the most ruthless of the lot. When she orders the mobsters' kids be kidnapped, Castle feels a pang of sympathy and settles on saving them even though he has a massive grudge against their parents, suggesting a message about atoning for sins was struggling to make its presence felt. On the side of the cops, there's Castle's old partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr - not the most likely Berkowitz you ever saw) who earnestly tries to track him down in a throwaway role that feels like a sop to those who find this kind of taking the law into their own hands objectionable. After a while it seems as if ninety percent of everyone who appears onscreen gets killed, but most worryingly is that Lundgren looks as if he's suffering a really bad bout of the flu throughout. Ignore that, and this is standard, solid fare. Music by Dennis Dreith.