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Head-Splatting

About halfway through Punisher: War Zone, the titular avenger finds himself in yet another dicey situation. Bad guys have invaded a suburban home and taken a recent widow and her young daughter here. Armed and armored, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) stomps in through a back door, shoots up the place, and grabs up the girl, nicely named Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) to hold under his arm while he continues dispensing with villains. Here we glimpse the film’s odd morality: rather than make anyone think it is subjecting an actual child actor to the horrors of explosions and bloody squibs, it makes explicit in a frame showing Frank’s full body that he’s holding a little-girl-sized doll, stiff-limbed and synthetic-haired, floppily immobile as he swings to blaze his automatic weapon: pltow-pltow-pltow-pltow!


Not every joke in Punisher: War Zone is so subtle. In fact, most of the movie is given over to broad and raucous violence. In theory, such an aesthetic-and-theme may seem perfect for a franchise named Punisher (emerging from Marvel comic books and video games, and seeped previously into movies starring video game hero incarnate Dolph Lundgren and the way-too-soulful Thomas Jane). But in execution, it is tedious indeed, each gutty, bloody set-piece working too hard to top the one before.


Frank’s relentless punishing is derived, as you know and as it must be, from trauma. In this version, the beach-picnic execution of his blond and beautiful family—who have witnessed a gangland murder—is reduced to personal flashback blips (see: this year’s The Incredible Hulk). The gruesome memory is introduced by Frank’s pained grimace in the present and ends with another close-up, this time showing his taut jaw. Yes, he’s driven. And yes, his self-appointed mission to kill every crime boss and minion in his tritely dark-streeted city can never be done. But that’s the point: Frank—the embodiment of loss and pain and vengeance—is forever.


Though the franchise takes regular note of the cost for such focus (Frank is not only endlessly haunted but also increasingly aggressive), it is conceived more as celebratory macho fantasy than an investigation of any soul-killing effects. In this installment, directed by World Karate and Kickboxing Champion Lexi Alexander (also former Princess Kitana in Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour), Frank’s heroic status is marked by his ballistic violence and also by his admiring crew, who include the cops who not-so-secretly abet his crimes and the black marketeer Micro (Wayne Knight), who regularly updates his arsenal. Now that the Punisher been in business some six years—that is, more or less since 9/11, a connection War Zone hits repeatedly—the cops have assigned a nominal task force to keep track of his crimes.


The affable nerd-detective in charge of this operation, Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) sits with his partner in a stakeout car or slunks in his basement office, crowded with files, keeping track of Frank’s record but not working very hard to stop him. In an early scene, Soap and his dead-meat partner listen in on a mob meeting that goes bad when Frank shows up: arriving on the scene post-carnage, the partner provides Frank with his car keys, then punches himself in the nose to make it appear he’s been overpowered by the vigilante. Two minutes later, Frank’s in the cop’s car, checking his own broken nose, which he fixes by shoving a pencil inside and shoving—hard. The visual-visceral link sets up a sort of spiritual allegiance, indicating as well that Frank is the hardest element by far in the chain. He will do anything to attain his end.


This anything includes not-killing the film’s designated Main Villain, a prideful and inept mob boss’ son named Billy Russoti (Dominic West, whose imagined melancholy over the end of The Wire is here refracted into giant-sized horrific antics). Every time he passes a mirror, Billy stops and preens, a habit that earns him a special punishment: Frank dumps him into a recycling center glass-crushing machine, such that his face is mangled—and then made exponentially worse by a surgeon from “the clinic” whose work features huge black stitches, horse-hide, and metal plates.  Renaming himself Jigsaw (apparently the name is not patented), Billy whines about not being able to look in mirrors anymore, as his ugly-face reflection now taunts him. Enter his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, more or less reprising his crazy-man criminal from Bait), who makes it his mission in life to body-slam every mirror he sees in order to preserve Billy’s ego. (This mission does lead to a comical visual aside, when the brothers are hauled down to the police station for interrogation, where an establishing shot through the customary one-way mirror room reveals the mirror to be smashed and Jim’s face re-bloodied.)


Like Frank, Jim and Billy proclaim their need for vengeance—against Frank for the face business and also against an undercover fed who infiltrates their organization, at least until Frank kills him. That Frank now feels overwhelming guilt on top of his desire for vengeance complicates his self-image somewhat… until he discovers that he can alleviate his guilt by saving the fed’s grieving widow Angie (Julie Benz, flailing here) and her daughter Grace (the aforementioned doll-girl) from Billy’s gang. That this saving necessitates all kinds of mayhem and bloodshed is all to the horrific-head-splatting-limbs-breaking-punishing good. Frank is aided here, sort of, by Soap, an arms-dealer wannabe (Carlos Gonzalez-vlo), and the dead fed’s vengeful partner (Colin Salmon, always so cool and bearing up admirably under the weight of this very silly part).


Frank’s multi-culti team is matched by Billy and Jim’s: they decide to recruit a slew of shooters by using the U.S. military’s strategy, canvassing “troubled neighborhoods” and “promising a college education.” Okay, so they don’t offer the latter, but they do give their one-from-every-food-group gangs (black, Asian, skinheady) lots of guns before they send them into an abandoned apartment house to blast away at Frank. The premise is so awful it veers toward sublime: the angry white guy kills everyone.

Extras rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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