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Punisher: War Zone (2008)

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Tuesday, Mar 24, 2009

Filmmakers are funny people. The movies they make are a lot like their children, and as with most good parents, they are reluctant to consider said offspring anything other than perfect. Even when their big screen brat runs around shrieking like a reject and shows as much brainpower as an inbred hillbilly homunculus, they put their aesthetic arm around their pointed little profit margin and kiss the box office boo-boo until it’s all better. In the grand pantheon of blind bat guardians, Lexi Alexander has to be the most baffled of them all. Throughout the comical commentary track she shares with cinematographer Steve Gainer, she tries to convince us that Punisher: War Zone is one of the best, most faithful comic book adaptations ever. Even if she’s right (or partially so), she’s still playing Mom to one mess of a motion picture.


After his family is killed by a mob hit gone wrong, Frank Castle, also known as vigilante crime fighter The Punisher, decides to go on a one man criminal killing spree. Taking out mafia families one by one, he’s responsible for hundreds of deaths. The police turn a blind eye to much of his activity because Castle can do what they legally and Constitutionally can’t. His current target is the Russotis, including the clan’s Narcissistic lieutenant, Billy. A stand-off in a glass factory leaves Castle with undercover cop blood on his hands, and the bad guy with a face full of deadly shards.


After some botched plastic surgery, Billy becomes “Jigsaw” and devises a plan to get back at the dead officer’s family and the man who mangled him. Freeing his insane brother James (otherwise known as “Loony Bin Jim”) from the asylum, they seek out the wife and daughter of the downed agent. All the while, Castle’s guilty conscious over the killing has him trying to help the wounded widow and child. Rallying his weapons expert Linus “Microchip” Lieberman, our street savor gets the arsenal necessary to take out these monsters once and for all.


With the Marvel imprint MAX as her constant mantra, and a bubbly personality that betrays a wealth of pre-release publicity on her “happiness” with the film’s final cut, listening to Lexi Alexander wax warmly about the movie she supposed abandoned over “creative differences” is reason enough to give Punisher: War Zone a spin. This is a filmmaker who can excuse away anything, from wooden performances (“this is exactly how the character acts in the comic”) to blowing off half of an old lady’s head (“it’s great”). There is no denying the fact that if you like bullets and lots and lots of them, this version of the second-tier antihero will definitely satiate your ammunition jones. More poorly aimed artillery rounds are expended here than in an entire season of a ‘70s crime drama. Utilizing the stylized approach to atrocity made famous by Hong Kong and indie Hollywood, Alexander tries to paint a graphic novel vista loaded with pain, anger, and wall-to-wall violence. What we get instead is the firefight equivalent of a gang bang.


Granted, this is a lot better than the Thomas Jane joke that Jonathan Hensleigh made out of the material. So Lionsgate has to be thanked for getting their head out of their horror films long enough to realize a new direction was needed. But what should we make of the reports circa July of 2008 that claimed Alexander was kicked off the film for delivering a blood spattered send-up of all things gun and gun-like. Obviously, arguments over the dollar sign differences between an R and a PG-13 rating were part of the process. But nowhere on this DVD do we hear about the supposed spat. It’s important to note, however, that the disc carries over the original theatrical cut of the film. Anyone hoping to get their hands on the “Unrated” brains and body parts edition of the title will be very disappointed indeed (if one even exists, that is).


That being said, Punisher: War Zone can be called a groveling guilty pleasure. It’s not in the same league as The Spirit, or Crank, or Ultraviolet, but it’s just bugnuts enough to find a place in the less discriminating facets of your movie loving logistics. As our corpse grinding “good” guy, Ray Stevenson puts on his best Brit glower and gives the Queen’s English the heave-ho for lots of guttural grunting. He’s matched in UK jive by the paisan paltriness of Dominic West’s Jigsaw. So stereotyped he might as well be eating dinga-magoo off the back of a bearded Italian grandmother, he gives the entire Mediterranean a bad name. About the only actor surviving this surreal shoot ‘em up is Percy Wetmore himself, Doug Hutchinson - and to hear Alexander tell it, he found his inner psycho all by himself.


As for the rest of the digital package, we are once again fooled by the so-called “two disc” tag. The second DVD is reserved for a downloadable copy of the film only. Talk about a big shrug of the shoulders. Elsewhere, we get the standard EPK material, puff pieces on casting, make-up, behind the scenes scuttlebutt, and that incredibly cockeyed alternate narrative track. When you consider that Alexander and Gainer get a chance to, more or less, “set the record straight”, the rest of this material is meaningless. Still, it’s fun to hear actors who basically know better explaining the motives beyond earning a big fat paycheck.


And you have to remember that, no matter the good/bad karma, no matter the kiss and make-up quality of this presentation, no matter the lack of butts in seats or total disrespect from critics (Rotten Tomatoes has this at 25% and dropping), what matters in the end is the movie. Fans have spoken, and they seem to like that Alexander mimicked the pen and ink publication they loved so well. For those outside the comic cult, this will be some hard media mindlessness to swallow. Sure, there’s a lonely Saturday night out there somewhere just waiting for you to rent this title and take a break from using your brain, and if you’re in the right mood, you may actually enjoy yourself. But don’t be fooled by Alexander and her unrealistic mother and child reunion. This is one cinematic kid that deserves a good spanking.


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