Action Rewind: Dolph Lundgren’s THE PUNISHER (1989)-The Essential Umbrella Entertainment Special Edition Blu-Ray Review

By: John M Jerva

It was the early 80’s when I started to develop my love for Marvel Comics anti-hero gun toting vigilante The Punisher. From his debut in The Amazing Spider-Man to his subsequent break out mini-series, younger me was hooked pretty much from the get-go. The character came into my life at the perfect time as I was starting to develop my love affair with all things action and this comic book character was different from all the other wholesome heroes populating comic bookstore shelves.

You can guess that when I discovered that there was a live action film adaptation of Mr. P with upstart action star Dolph Lundgren playing the coveted role, you can get that I was stoked to say the least. I saw all the advertisements and articles about the movie with Lundgren all suited up and even though he wasn’t wearing the trademark skull on his chest (we’ll talk about that later), I was still jazzed for it. The trailer was released ahead of its planned theatrical release which just added more fuel to the fanboy fire but alas we waited.

Unfortunately, the film from director Mark Goldblatt (Dead Heat) and also starring iconic actor Louis Gossett, Jr. never made it to the theaters in the states because New World Pictures, which was releasing it, was sold and the new investors were not interested with theatrical releases. I waited ever so impatiently for the film to come out in some respects, and it finally did on home video to which I paid a hefty price to own my own copy.

Even though, the film takes liberties with the character, it’s still the first representation of The Punisher on the screen and Lundgren owned it in an ultra-violent, unapologetic 80’s free for all action extravaganza that was loaded with action from start to finish. Lundgren’s version of Frank Castle AKA The Punisher forms an uneasy alliance with the very man he’s waged war on when The Yakuza emerges as an even bigger threat. I always loved the Yakuza being the main baddies as it offered ample opportunity for martial arts action. By the way, Kim Miyori is nothing short of spectacular as Lady Tanaka, the head of the Yakuza family. She’s ruthless and no holds barred and a force to be reckoned with and one of my favorite cinematic villains in a Punisher movie.

I’ve had the film on VHS and, of course, DVD but nothing beats the special edition Blu-Ray from Umbrella Entertainment that features the original theatrical version along with the hard-to-find unrated cut. The Holy Grail of this edition is the addition of the Mark Goldblatt work print which features the deleted 15 minute into. It finally shows fans the sequence that was shown on the back of the original DVD case. There’s been a slew of international releases for the movie including some sweet looking steel bookcases but this one was affordable and region free, so I gobbled it up right away.

The workprint is crude and it’s unfinished in the respect that the original music hadn’t been added as well as other things yet, but the opening salvo definitely makes it a worthwhile watch. Although it does change the tighter pacing of the original version that was released, we get to see Lundgren’s Frank Castle and Gossett’s Jake Berkowitz interact more and we see Castle as a cop and family man before his family is tragically murdered thus sending him on the path to becoming the iconic and infamous instrument of punishment.

Lundgren and Gossett definitely have a Riggs and Murtaugh vibe going for them in these new scenes, and we get an added action sequence where Castle and Berkowitz go after Dino Moretti who works for Jeroen Krabbe’s Gianni Franco. It gives the plot more depth when it comes to this storyline, and we get a better sense of Castle wanting to take out Moretti as he’s the one directly responsible for killing his family.

We also get to see how they first met detective Sam Leary (Nancy Everhard). Leary was undercover as a hooker for the Moretti bust and it ties in when she later mentions that to Berkowitz when she first pleads him to take her on as she also feels that Castle is still alive and waging war on the guilty.

It’s funny to actually hear the score from Lethal Weapon as well as other classic movies like Aliens as the music for the movie wasn’t finished yet. You can play a game of name that theme song as you watch this cut. The original music that Dennis Dreith actually did for the finished product is pure 80’s action gold and it stands atop even to this day as one of my favorite scores and gives the movie an epic tinge to it.

This version of the film does have some pacing issues and it takes a while for things to get going as there’s more plot to be had but it’s interesting to see what Goldblatt originally has planned for the movie. The version that was released is tighter and faster paced so having both versions of the movie offers fans a different viewing experience depending on what mood you’re in.

The unrated version of the cut that was released is also worth the price of the Blu-Ray alone. A few minutes were trimmed off the movie to allow it it’s R rating, so these longer sequences of violence are now restored into the finished product. It is worth noting that you’ll be able to tell what was put back in as the movie looks grainier and darker when the extra scenes are added.

Other noteworthy extras include a brief interview with Lundgren himself where he talks about getting the role and doing the movie and we also get a longer chat with director Mark Goldblatt where he serves up even more details about what went into making the movie.

The unrated cut also contains a full-length commentary by Goldblatt which is definitely informative as he talks in great length about making the adaptation. Goldblatt gives us enhanced details about the cast and shooting the action sequences. He also talks about why they never had Lundgren wear the skull which at one time was thought to be because Marvel denied them. In actuality, it was Goldblatt and company who thought that Lundgren wouldn’t look right with the outfit. He does go on record as saying that it was mistake in doing this. I was always fine with it, but it would have been cool to see Lundgren in full outfit.

Another funny anecdote about the making of the movie has Goldblatt saying that they had no idea that Lundgren was a world champion karate practitioner. While filming they discovered this, and it led to Lundgren being involved in more hand-to-hand fight action.

To top off the special features, we also get a gag reel that shows of some rare BTS footage. It’s a treat for collectors like myself and we also get the original theatrical trailer that first introduced us to this movie all those years ago. For a finale, there’s a reversible cover which features some rad new artwork as well.

Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher is a great example of how 80’s action films rocked as there is endless action, extreme violence, an extremely high body count which reaches over 100 and Lundgren using an arsenal of weapons throughout the film to dispense his vengeance. My personal favorite was his bad ass looking M-60 outfitted with an M-203 grenade launcher. Now that’s a man’s weapon. There’s a great blend of firepower and fisticuffs during the running time and Lundgren was really proving that he was an elite action star.

The finale alone is what every fan could hope for as Castle and Franco erupt out of the elevator with guns blazing. Countless Yakuza members are vaporized in seconds and that’s only the beginning of the end as they carve their way through a horde of goons.

Does this first screen adaptation of the popular comic book character take liberties? Of course, it does but it’s still a great ride from start to finish. Even though there’s no skull around (except on the throwing knives he uses), Lundgren still portrays a stellar Frank Castle and you can see the hurt and pain in his eyes throughout the film and he embodies the torment of the character.

Everyone has their favorite, but besides Jon Bernthal, Dolph Lundgren will always be up there as he was the first to do it and with fierce style. There’s action aplenty and practical stunts loaded in the set pieces, and this is definitive and essential 80’s action viewing.

If you get the opportunity, pick up Umbrella Entertainment’s edition of The Punisher as it is a must have for serious fans of this movie and action in general. It’s vintage one man army Dolph Lundgren at his finest and one hell of an adaptation of our favorite gun toting vigilante.

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