07 December 2008

Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Directed by Lexi Alexander
Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchinson, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok


Punisher: War Zone answers the important question: “What if the slasher were on our side?” Frank Castle, ex-special forces man on an endless quest to kill all gangsters in the world to avenge the murder of his family, pulls out every creatively gory Jason Vorhees and The Shape trick in the book, and walks around with the same invulnerability from his adversaries you expect from a horror movie serial killer. But instead of capping dumb teens, he’s mowing down mobsters. If that’s what you want from the famous Marvel Comics character (who, believe it or not, started life as a Spider-Man one-shot villain), then the newest attempt to franchise the Punisher on the big-screen will please you.

Although this third movie captures the comic book character—specifically the first solo-run in the mid-‘80s and Garth Ennis’s recent stretch on the MAX line—better than the first two, it’s not as good a movie as the 2004 vehicle starring Thomas Jane. That film lacked the dark fury of the character, and the Punisher didn’t do much, you know, punishing until the end, but the damn thing actually grew on me, mostly because of Jane’s perfect portrayal of the character and because it doesn’t wear out its welcome too fast. It also re-calls the exploitation films of the 1970s, which was a surprising bonus. The new film is a nice jolt of adrenalin, and the Punisher starts punishing from the moment he appears (beginning with a decapitation), but I can’t imagine I’ll want to sit down and watch it again without feeling wearied. There isn’t enough going on in it aside from the big action set-pieces to recommend a double-dip.

Ray Stevenson, from the cable series Rome, replaces Jane as the lead, but aside from physically looking like Frank Castle as he cuts down the mob, he isn’t that interesting. Jane’s character was ruthless but also human, which made his intensity even more forceful. Stevenson is just ruthless, and maybe that’s all some Punisher fans will want, but it isn’t enough to satisfy beyond the level of, “Well, that was kind of cool, but…”

To play fair with Stevenson, the script doesn’t give the Punisher much to do aside from finding interesting ways the kill off all the mobsters in Montreal—I mean New York, in no way resembling Montreal. The attempt to give Frank Castle some conflict after he accidentally slays an undercover FBI agent during one of his massacres does far better at motivating the other characters in the story, like the dead man’s former partner (Colin Salmon) and his distraught wife (Julie Benz, who also appeared in the other over-the-top gore-fest action flick of 2008, Rambo) than the title character. The Punisher’s origin has also gotten reduced to a few flashbacks, but that works to the film’s advantage since it means the action can hit the ground running and cross the finish line early.

Director Lexi Alexander seems aware of the outrageous nature of the story and fills the Punisher’s world with equally outrageous performances to make sure viewers never forget that this is a fantasy urban comic book world. Dominic West plays Jigsaw, one of the few continuing villains in the Punisher’s universe, as if he were a Batman villain in an ultra-violent version of the ‘60s TV show, or one of the Burton-Schumacher Batman films that somehow managed to score an R-rating. I’m not complaining, since West sure seems to be having a good time, and I love that his makeup looks like it came from Jack Pierce, the Universal monster-maker of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Alexander directs all the action-sequences well, and I’ll give her credit for understanding what the hardcore fans wanted delivered, even if that means we don’t end up with anything to take away from the movie aside from creative deaths.

I can’t imagine we’ll see another Punisher movie in the near future. Even if Punisher: War Zone rakes in some cash, there isn’t much about the new installment that cries for a sequel. It’s satisfactory for the moment, but I can’t see it leaving anyone wanting more that they can’t get from buying a trade paperback collecting some of the Garth Ennis issues.

I paid six dollars to Ray Stevenson as the Punisher. But do you know what I would gladly have paid twelve bucks to see? Adlai Stevenson as the Punisher. He’s prepared to wait until Hell freezes over for your answer! YES OR NO?