In these days of Marvel’s seventeen-film franchise, it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t dominating the cinematic landscape and creating new shows for streaming three times a year. But back in the late 1980’s, Marvel had a difficult time fulfilling Stan Lee’s dream of getting the characters that he (and many others) co-created on the big screen until, that is, Marvel were purchased by New World Pictures. The first film out of the gates was a low-budget action-movie, shot in just fifty days based on one of the most popular characters in Marvel’s canon, The Punisher.
If you’ve never seen the film, you’re in for a surprise. Despite it’s budget and the haste with which it was put together, the movie is reminiscent of 1970’s Italian cop cinema. Trashy and lurid but with a strong visual palette and imaginative action sequences.
Largely unseen and ignored for over a decade, the film was recently reissued on Blu-Ray and DVD. Following this, The Prince Charles Cinema screened the film as part of The Orbital Comics Presents season. Liz and I went along to present the screening and host one of our amazing pop-up shops last month. In addition to this, we were also given the opportunity to speak to Jeremie Damoiseau, author of Dolph Lundgren’s biography and a successful book (first published in France) on the making of the ’89 Punisher. With the book due to be published in the UK later this year, we spoke to Jeremie about his interest in Dolph Lundgren’s work and this film in particular.
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Jeremie Damoiseau (Photo By Guy d’Artet de Neufmoustier)
ORBITAL: Jeremie, thanks for talking to us. How did your interest in the 1989 version of The Punisher first begin?
Well, my love for films and cinema kicked off when I was nine years old and I had just seen the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie (starring Dolph Lundgren of course). I had been a fan of the toy line since it first came out and I remember seeing those large quad poster marquees of the film in the Parisian metro. The poster was kind of a gritty take on the characters, painted by the late French poster artist Jean Mascii (his artwork was used for the UK release as well). Up until then, I had mostly seen animated films, as well as Walter Murch’s disturbing Return to Oz, so when I finally saw the live-action Masters of the Universe, it had the same impact on me as Star Wars for other people. In fact, I think I would only see Star Wars after Masters. Soon, I found the official magazine for the movie, with interviews, stills and some behind the scenes stories.
Cinema became a sacred word for me and I would immerse myself in anything having to do with film, like devouring the Parisian ‘Time Out’- called L’Officiel des Spectacles- and Pariscope, learning classic movie titles and directors names, movie theatres, their locations and arrondissement numbers in Paris and its suburban cities, ratings, the top 20 box-office admissions etc; and more in other dedicated magazines. France has always been the country with the biggest number of film trades and revues and within a of couple years I was watching all kinds of movies, not just action and genre flicks.
ORBITAL: Sounds like Masters of the Universe made a big imapct! This led to your interest in Dolph Lundgren, I take it?
Learning about Dolph Lundgren and his background, I soon became a fan of this “larger than life He-Man”, parallel to my interest in film. Just by reading a small biography, I connected with his academic pursuits (back then, I almost studied chemical engineering like he did!). His karate background spoke to me even more, since that was my other big passion. But mostly, I related to something that I couldn’t put in words, an attitude I saw in his eyes in certain photos. A reserved, humble and shy personality, contrasting with his huge, tall, muscle-bound physique. I felt could identify with him and I kind of looked up to him. It would only be decades later that I understood where my connection with him came from, and why it lasted over the years. In 2008, he started to publicly open up about his being abused by his father as a child. If you want to know more about this, I recommend you watch the TEDX talk that he gave in 2015, called ‘Healing and forgiveness‘. Its also worth reading his book, Train Like An Action Hero: Be Fit Forever, (from Skyhorse Publishing), in which he talk about his life up before he became a film star.
I started following Dolph’s career after soon I saw Masters of the Universe. At the time, French genre and action cinema magazines covered his upcoming films a lot. You could find very early and in-depth preview articles on Red Scorpion, and then The Punisher, long before they would be released. In the 11 months before The Punisher’s theatrical release, there would be consistent articles about the film in Magazines such as Ciné-News, Impact (Mad Movies’ sister publication) or L’Ecran fantastique. And that magazine also commissioned an impressive hand-painted cover by artist Laurent Melki that now adorns the cover of the French edition of my book. Interestingly enough, it was the cult French magazine Starfix, founded by future director Christophe Gans, that published the first promotional stills of The Punisher, as soon as the production wrapped filming, Gans was a huge cinephile, like Quentin Tarantino and Starfix had a worldwide exclusive. In a pre-internet era all this coverage was a big deal!
Needless to say, by the time the movie came out in France in late October 1989, I had to see it! The only hiccup was that I was only ten going on eleven, and I did not anticipate its restriction for under-thirteens (the French ratings being much more liberal for what would be R-rated or eighteen certificate films in the US or the UK)! I had had no trouble getting in to see Red Scorpion five months earlier, since it was not even rated at all, so that became a big deal, leading to an argument between my parents letting me go see it or not. Ultimately they gave in and I took take a ten minute train-ride alone for the first time to the nearest theatre showing it, a few miles from my home-town.
When it was over, The Punisher left quite a mark on me and I didn’t really want to come back to reality. The downbeat ending, the mob boss’ kid pointing a gun at the Punisher’s face, Frank’s infamous line ‘grow up to be a good man, because if not, I’ll be waiting‘ and Louis Gossett’s Jr.’s heartfelt scream from the top of the Yakuza skyscraper, underscored by Dennis Dreith’s melancholic score, all converged to a unique emotion I had not felt from a film before. I wasn’t disturbed, just emotional, like the feeling you get when you hear a really good truthful, sad song.
ORBITAL: Sounds like an intense experience and there’s certainly some attempt in the film at a kind of depth of emotion. Why do you think the movie fell into obscurity, then later gained such a cult following?
I think there are several factors to consider. Firstly, I believe that many people saw the film on VHS and TV, and loved it even back then, but for a long time they were not necessarily vocal about it, until much later. In fact, Tarantino told director Mark Goldblatt about his love for it. James Cameron appreciated it as well when Goldbalatt (his editor on The Terminator) screened it for him. It’s kind of the same with Dolph Lundgren. Many grew up watching his films and loved his work, but by the mid 1990s until the early 2000s, it wasn’t something you could really brag about socially. He was generally considered a poor man’s Schwarzenegger, or just the Soviet boxer from Rocky IV.
The 1989 Punisher film slowly started to be rehabilitated when the 2004 movie with Thomas Jane and John Travolta came out and let some fans down. The new movie brought back discussions about the first adaptation, more people watched it, and many thought, incorrect costume or not, Dolph wasn’t that bad after all. And then the love for the 1980s started to come back in full force. On top of that, Lundgren’s directorial outputs like The Defender, The Mechanik, Missionary Man and Command Performance began to be genuinely appreciated and were considered superior to other recent straight-to-video films. Then came The Expendables! Just the announcement that he’d be in it really started the big buzz around the project, which really put him back under the spotlight, as well this genre of old-school action cinema from the Reagan era …
ORBITAL: Keeping those things in mind, what would you like people to know about this film before they watch it?
First, I would like everybody to put the movie back in context of the time that it was made and not compare it to more recent Punisher films or comics. You have to remember that the original screenplay was written in the first half of 1987, and the film was shot in the summer of 1988 (right before Tim Burton’s Batman and not after). When Boaz Yakin wrote the script, the latest comics of The Punisher were the five issues of Steven Grant and Mike Zeck’s mini-series Circle of Blood. Even Mike Baron’s monthly comics would not come out until months later, so a lot of aspects, plotlines and characters didn’t exist. On the other hand, Yakin was a true comic fan and he attempted to bring elements from Frank Miller’s Daredevil appearances of The Punisher and other influences. For instance, the Yakuza was directly inspired by “The Hand” in Daredevil and Lady Tanaka’s bodyguards originally came from ‘The Masters of Death’ in the Japanese manga Lone Wolf & Cub (although there were three in the manga, in the film the third became Tanaka’s mute adoptive daughter). The Punisher’s monologues in the movie replaced the comics “war journal”… even the character of Shake was a comic reference since he was supposed to be like Moon Knight’s Bertrand Crawley. That makes this film more faithful to the comics of the time than most people think. Of course he fought for the skull to be prominently displayed in the film but ultimately lost that argument. Another aspect he had also kept but was removed in the rewrites was that the fact Frank Castle was a Special Forces veteran.
Also, the film was intended by Mark Goldblatt as a “noir film by way of Mario Bava”, unlike the typical action flick of the 1980s. It’s dark, bleak, but it’s not supposed not too pretty. Not ‘romanticized’ as the director would say. Goldblatt is huge cinephile, and you can tell his film does pay homage to the genre cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, and it really looks like a blend of Italian, Australian and Japanese exploitation films. Fritz Lang is another influence. Goldblatt was a big fan of Lang’s and especially The Big Heat, which deals with a very similar detective-turned vigilante theme. The film really departs from the actions movies of the time that were more patriotic, cheerful or “glossy”, tongue-in-cheek etc. But it’s the lack of those things that are part of what makes gives Punisher it’s strength.
Regarding the hand to hand fights for instance, many find them dull. But you have to remember that Van Damme’s Bloodsport and Seagal’s Above the Law had not been released when Robert Mark Kamen (producer, Goju Ryu expert, and writer of The Karate Kid films) and Dolph Lundgren decided to design them in the tradition of Kyokushin Karate, the tough knockdown style in which Dolph is trained champion. It’s a style that’s not focused on fancy, graceful moves, but on power and efficiency. Two Japanese champions were brought in from the founder’s dojo in Tokyo to play the Yakuza bodyguards. They spoke very little English and didn’t fully understand the concept of stunt fighting for the camera. Their final fight with Dolph was like an actual dojo kumite, not pulled punches, and sometimes damaging the cameras, especially for the POV shots! Lundgren’s mentor (and many other martial artists from nearby dojos) came to work on the film as well. So the approach was to be as realistic as possible. The Punisher doesn’t care how he eliminates his enemies, he just pounds them until they’re out! So maybe that wasn’t the most visually stunning combat depicted on screen, but they were powerful when they performed them. I didn’t ask him, but I also suspect that Dolph was still influenced by the way Stallone handled the two boxing matches in Rocky IV, which was a very “real” approach (infamously landing Sly in the hospital) and it’s possible he tried to attempt something in the same vein for The Punisher.
ORBITAL: Is it these type of stories from the set that prompted your decision to write a book about the film?
That’s a story in itself! Actually, I didn’t really came up with the project on my own, and I didn’t even realise that the making of The Punisher could fill an entire book (unlike more difficult productions such as Masters of the Universe and Red Scorpion)! What happened was that three years ago, I was commissioned to write in-depth liner notes for a 30-pages booklet that would have been included in the French collector’s Blu-ray edition of the movie. I worked on it for three months, but for reasons that I won’t detail here, my notes were not used in that edition. It’s by writing them that I figured that this could be a really cool book
I had already written around 70 pages, A4 format as opposed to the 30 pages I was supposed to write! And since it was in French already, I would start with the French version, but already had it in mind to follow up with an international edition in English. All I had to do for the French edition was to polish, rewrite and expand what I had already. I didn’t need to change the structure or anything. That took another year, whilst I was looking for a publisher willing to commit to a niche film book like that. There were only a few film publishers left in France by then, so then I self-published it through a print-on-demand company that also distributed it on all the mainstream online stores. It was released in October 2016, and I got about a dozen reviews, all raves, so that felt really good after all the work and hours I put in. And since I’m bilingual and had already published articles and liner notes in English, my goal was always to follow up with an English version, which I’m currently editing and polishing. The good news is that I’ve received several offers from publishers for the English version, based on a 50-page pitch proposal document i sent out.
Of course, the ‘real’ first book that I’ve been working on for more than decade isn’t even finished yet: A retrospective book on Dolph Lundgren’s career and the making of all his films (because even the bad ones have crazy genesis and fun anecdotes to be told). I interviewed much more than 100 cast and crew members by now, and given my in-depth approach, it might take another few years before completion!
ORBITAL: This sounds like a great book and certainly one I’d love to read! Are there any amusing anecdotes you can share from the book about the movie?
The book is full of anecdotes, many of which have never been shared publicly before! Do you know that Nicole Kidman was initially cast as Lou Gossett’s partner (this was right after she had shot Dead Calm)? Or that Christopher Lambert was producer Robert Kamen’s first choice to play The Punisher? Do you know that Dolph Lundgren was seen reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the set, or that the French distributor had organised a fake contest to win a Harley Davidson because they couldn’t afford one? There are also lots of stories and clarifications about the missing skull logo (except for the knives), the US direct-to-video release debacle, as well as the entwined histories of Marvel and New World Pictures studio, as well as an introduction about the late 1980s comic book wave that had been announced and is mostly forgotten now.
It features more than 25 interviews I conducted with Dolph Lundgren, Mark Goldblatt, Robert Mark Kamen, Boaz Yakin and of course Jeroen Krabbé (who was an alumni of Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch films). In addition, I have interviews with the cinematographer Ian Baker (Fred Schepisi’s frequent collaborator), editor Tim Wellburn (who previously cut the Mad Max 2 chase sequence), composer Dennis Dreith, legendary stunt coordinator Chris Anderson, and many others including Punisher comics writer Steven Grant, Marvel editors Carl Potts and Tom DeFalco, you name it! I even spoke to Brooke Anderson, who played Castle’s younger daughter, and has since been a popular teen actress in Australia (where the movie was shot), and moved to LA to also produce and direct independent films. Unfortunately I could never find or talk to the costume and production designer Norma Moriceau though who ver sadly passed away recently. It’s a shame because Moriceau was an important figure in the film and fashion worlds after designing the costumes of Mad Max 2 and 3 as well as Punisher.
ORBITAL: It sounds like a really exhaustive, interesting book! Let’s talk about the later versions of The Punisher for a moment. How do you feel this version compares to the other versions of this story that have since been made?
I would say that the 2004 Punisher was mishandled. I don’t know too much about what went on behind the scenes or the studio politics behind it. It may have been a question of the writing or rewrites, director’s choices, executives interferences, or a mix of all those factors, but it was sold as the “real” Punisher movie, and it turned out as a bland, watchable, quasi-unfaithful and overall forgettable attempt. Even Thomas Jane dismissed it and produced his own Punisher short film, (Dirty Laundry, directed by Phil Jouanou) as a love letter to the fans, the character and as an attempt to get Marvel and Lionsgate’s attention.
The next film from 2008, Punisher War Zone, took another direction, more extreme, bloody and action-packed, but it completely left out any kind of characterisation. On that one, I know that the director, Lexi Alexander, expressed how difficult it was dealing with two studios and being torn between Marvel and Lionsgate, despite the fact that was only a modest $10 million movie and not an expensive blockbuster. So I stand by the original 1989 film, and the new series from Netflix.
ORBITAL: You’re Dolph Lundgren’s biographer. What for you makes him such an interesting actor and person?
There is his down to earth, grounded personality first. Dolph is an enjoyable person to hang out with, and outside of work he likes to be surrounded with “ordinary”, non-Hollywood people. When you have a meal with him at a restaurant him, he likes to have a good time, to share and enjoy the food with everybody, and sometimes even have you try his desert!. And he doesn’t behave like someone who will take care of the bill to parade, show off some power or something. He’s not sheltered from what’s going on in the world either. Dolph is a curious person, a big history buff. He loves leaning about WWII and the origins of wines and his background, traditional Swedish education and academic pursuits certainly become apparent when you spend time with him.
Certainly, you could dismiss or criticise some of his career choices as an actor. But he always played his own game, without caring too much about what people say or being arrogant about big career plans. First off, his Hollywood film career and celebrity fell on him so suddenly and he wasn’t prepared for it on a personal level: having to learn the ropes of the business, crooked agents and managers taking advantage of him or making him choosing certain projects, whilst he was still searching for who he was as a person, in his relationships, and as an actor. But as early as Red Scorpion and The Punisher, he was always been trying to take roles that would be interesting expansion of his range and allow him to work on his craft. Punisher and Red Scorpion were not typical action heroes you could really cheer for. They were antiheroes. Not exactly in the same vein as the characters played Arnold or Jean-Claude and maybe that partly explains why they didn’t connect so much with audiences at the time. The Punisher attracted him because not only was he fully clothed in it, but it was also a dark, ambiguous, almost schizophrenic character that gave him an opportunity to play a deranged, unpredictable guy, as well as a contemporary American family man, instead of a Russian boxer, an alien Hercules or a Russian super-soldier. Sadly, most of this footage was confined to the 15 minutes of prologue that was deleted from the final cut.
He would also take challenges, even in the forgotten and underrated Cover-Up in which he plays a reporter and never uses a weapon. His goal was genuinely to broaden his range in order to makes all kinds of films. He would always go back to acting classes between projects and didn’t want to be typecast as an action star. Like he said himself before Rocky IV, he went to acting because he had inner conflicts and emotions he needed to get out. But he became a star before he had the chance to become an actor.
All throughout his career, Dolph showed ambiguity and a taste for projects that you wouldn’t necessarily see with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Steven Seagal appear in. Movies like Men of War (written by John Sayles and one of Dolph’s best films). A glorified cameo as a demented preacher in Johnny Mnemonic. Or an almost “art-house”, abstract action piece like Russell Mulcahy’s Silent Trigger. And what about the 70’s-set S&M character piece / thriller Jill Rips (helmed by horror artisan Anthony Hickox)? Lundgren worked with directors as diverse as Sylvester Stallone, Ted Kotcheff, John Woo, Sidney J. Furie, Swedish indie Jonas Akerlund, but moreover who else among action stars can brag about having been directed by the Coen brothers? Athough 90% of Dolph’s Hail, Caesar! scene was cut out due to time constraints, they enjoyed working together. Some of his unproduced projects were really cool as well, like this period piece with Possession director Andrzej Zulawski, The Tiger, which was a war film blending Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, opium, and mystical shamanism. Dolph had also been attached to projects currently in ‘development hell’ projects with directors such as Roger Avary and John Dahl, including a project based on a script by John Carpenter, He was even attached to a movie adaptation of the violent and racy Italian ‘fumetti’ RanXerox! All this contributed to my loyalty to Dolph Lundgren, always expecting better movies, better directors, and a rehabilitation to come.
ORBITAL: Those projects sound amazing and I’ll certainly be tracking down the ones that did get made! But I’d love to know… What’s your favourite thing about the Punisher?
The unique tone of the film! Although I saw the film when I was very young, I still found it very different from anything else in that period. For example, I’ve always loved the original score by Dennis Dreith (who later became an orchestrator on movie scores like Jurassic Park and The Rock). Dreith’s compositions can seem like typical 80s action music, but it’s not. Like the film in general, it’s somewhat dissonant compared to other pieces from that era. Sure, it’s bombastic, but if you pay attention to it, you can tell Dreith is really trying to pay attention to the unhinged side of the character.
Visually, the film doesn’t exactly reflect its time either. It has a very bleak look for the first two-thirds of the movie. But for the last act and final showdown, you’re in this very white and minimalist environment, especially Lady Tanaka’s room, where the film climaxes. And of course in between, the main lights are shut down and replaced by this red, almost Hitchockian or Eisensteinian, Ivan the Terrible-style ambiance. Then it goes back to normal lighting, which almost blinds you, a bizarre affect on an audience, really! Thankfully now we have nicely transferred Blu-ray editions to fully appreciate that, because of course the colour red doesn’t fare too well with VHS tapes and old TVs! By the way, I recommend the German Steelbook or Amaray edition, because it’s the only one that features the uncut version in HD entirely, without the quick Laserdiscs inserts. I fully advise people to watch the film or revisit it with new eyes. Not that it’s a huge masterpiece of cinema, but it’s really special, and stands test of time than you’d think. Nowadays, with the direction taken by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Logan, Deadpool, or the Daredevil series, you can tell that this first Punisher was ahead of its time. You can even find some elements of it in the new Netflix! And even if you like the series better, don’t dismiss the first Punisher movie, I think they’re both good and they complement one another. And lastly, look out for the book release, currently entitled The Punisher: The Untold Story of an 80s Classic!
We’d like to thank Jeremie for taking the time to talk to us. You can follow Jeremie’s book on Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram. We would also like to thank the staff at The Prince Charles Cinema, who arranged the screening for us! You can become a member of the PCC by clicking on the link.
Paul & Liz