[4 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By now, the comic book movie is really nothing new. We’ve already gone through the various phases of adoration - from sycophantic worship to contemplative critical scrutiny. There’s no middle ground anymore. Either your latest funny book hero has to resemble a certain Dark Knight (or at the very least, an Iron Man) or you’re crapping on the artform. Even amiable efforts by The Incredible Hulk and anything X-Men are now considered second tier. So where does The Punisher fit into this fly by night, strike while the iron’s hot dynamic. Is the antihero vigilante a viable 2008 commodity, or was Dolph Lundgren the last word when the character went straight to video back in 1989. After witnessing the waste that is Punisher: War Zone, the answer seems like a solid “yes”.
When his family accidentally witnesses a mob hit, Frank Castle loses everything - wife, children, and marbles. Becoming The Punisher, he works closely with the NYPD to root out the bad guys and deliver a little judge, jury, and executioner justice. During a raid on the headquarters of mob hitman Billy Russoti, Castle accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. This gets the bureau and its point man Agent Paul Budiansky angry, puts the dead man’s family in danger, and gets The Punisher to question his current career path. In the meantime, he messes up Russoti’s face, and after some botched plastic surgery, the mobster becomes a crazed monster named Jigsaw. After getting his nutso brother out of the insane asylum, the freakshow fiend decides to do away with the wife and child of the G-man, and kill The Punisher once and for all.
Punisher: War Zone is 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face - bad Italian stereotypes, non-existent narrative, and people getting shot in the face. There are so many goombahs in this film that the Super Mario Brothers need to be nervous. Members of certain anti-defamation leagues should be up in arms over the meatballs and manicotti way the mobsters are portrayed. If Sicilians got angry over how they were depicted in The Godfather, this latest Punisher should give them ‘agida’ in the ‘dingamagoo’. And forget that so-called “torture porn”. When the title hero opens fire, no one is left standing, blood spraying like spackle from an untrained plasterer’s pallet knife. And don’t look for anything referenced in the previous flimsy films. This is a reboot, meant to bypass events previous and go right up your unsuspecting ass.
German born Lexi Alexander was rumored to have left this project after completion due to what Lionsgate called “creative differences”. The ‘Net is rife with speculation, but when viewed in 35mm, it’s hard to see where the complaints were. If the studio wanted more violence, then what was Alexander thinking ratcheting down the mayhem? And if they wanted less, then didn’t they see a script filled with firefight after firefight and a main character whose face is literally scraped apart by broken glass? Maybe they all realized how mediocre the movie actually is. Nothing separates the know-it-all rats from a sinking cinematic ship quicker than a literal lack of motion picture quality.
But Alexander needs to be complimented for staying so closely to the overall ‘80s feel of the film. This Punisher plays like a Charles Band byproduct, make-up effects resembling rejects from Dead Heat and the Savage Steve Holland portfolio. It’s all so cartoonish, uncomplicated, and manufactured to mean nothing beyond its basic shoot ‘em up strategies. Such a result creates a critical dilemma, however. A certain level of love/hate delineation is evident here. If you want plot, characterization, and narrative complexity, go down to your local B&M and buy a copy of Crank, or better yet, anything by Asian auteur John Woo. But if the discharge of gunpowder followed by the random opening of fleshy wounds is all you really care about, then settle in for some serene face-shredding delights.
From a performance standpoint, the new cast is just as capable as the old, with one odd exception. Mock his love of Scientology, but John Travolta was a much more effective villain in the original Punisher than Dominic West’s Don of Douchebags, Billy Russoti, aka Jigsaw. Any character that maintains a sense of narcissism even after a massive Jack Nicholson circa The Joker makeover is not evil - he’s friggin’ nuts. Odder still, he passes off most of the dirty work to his bugnuts brother Looney Bin Jim. As played by the Green Mile‘s pansied Percy Wetmore, Doug Hutchinson, we get the standard insane cackle followed by lots of stunt double fight moves. And as for the main man himself, Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is like an insurance salesman settling unpaid policy scores. He doesn’t look the part of a pissed off vigilante. He’s more like a guy dressed in black paramilitary gear looking for a three martini business meeting.
Far from a complete disaster, Punisher: War Zone does offer up lots of that already mentioned face shooting fun. But on the other hand, when all you have is shrapnel to the visage, there’s not a lot of leeway in the consideration. In a year which saw the sensational Wanted along with a bevy of better action films, this is hapless Hitman hokum at best. In the pantheon of Marvel/DC possibilities, some characters need to be left to the pages of a pen and ink fantasy. They just can’t make a successful leap to legitimate big screen substance. The Punisher is clearly a last tier talent. No matter how many bullets he lets loose in someone’s mug, he just can’t elevate his status above subpar.