November 30, 2011 by abbyo
The Punisher strikes me as an ugly duckling in the world of comics. He’s supposed to be a hero, but it’s not really possible to pigeonhole the character that way, since he uses such unpleasant tactics to fight crime. The character has been the subject of three movies, none of which were successful: the 1989 straight-to-video release starring Dolph Lundgren, the 2004 movie with Thomas Jane, and this week’s subject: “Punisher: War Zone,” the reboot starring Ray Stevenson, and directed by “Green Street Hooligans’” Lexi Alexander. I’m beginning to think there’s a reason we haven’t seen a successful Punisher movie yet, and “War Zone” gives you pretty much every reason why. It’s amazingly violent, even by comic book movie standards, and has some elements that just don’t translate well from the source material. What you end up with is a movie that’s 103 minutes of blood-soaked madness that’s sleazy, so-bad-it’s-good fun, but will probably never make for a bona fide hit, no matter who’s in the director’s chair.
I decided to review “War Zone” this week after finally getting to listen to the “How Did This Get Made” podcast episode where Alexander and staunch “War Zone” defender Patton Oswalt were guests. It was a really interesting episode, and I ended up learning a lot of about what I had considered (up until that point) a throwaway movie. Alexander is a smart lady, and her story of how she was brought on to the project, her vision for the movie and approach to the story were enough to make me want to give “War Zone” a chance. I’m glad that I did. I’d still never confuse it with a good movie, but for what it is—pure, cartoonish, ultraviolent craziness—it’s not bad.
There’s kind of a vague outline of plot, but it’s really just a device to get to all the gun fighting and brutal beat downs. We have the Punisher, Frank Castle (Stevenson) who’s trying to bring down a mob boss. We have the heir to the mob boss’ operation (Dominic West) who’s just survived being run through a glass grinder—by Castle, no less—and now looks hideous. By way of revenge, West builds an army to try and rub Castle out. There are some cops and a pesky federal agent who get in the way. That’s all you need to know.
The way you evaluate “War Zone” depends largely on what kind of movie you think it is you’re seeing. According to Alexander, the movie is supposed to be pure pulpy camp, and I think it shows in the choices the actors make in their performances. West apes it up big time here, with a performance that falls just short of gleefully evil. That particular extra inch of insanity lies in the hands of Doug Hutchison, who plays West’s psychotic brother, Loony Bin Jim.
The only straight man in the bunch is Stevenson, which works when he has to hold his own against characters like Loony Bin Jim or a gang of meth head parkour guys, but it’s a bit of a drag when he’s by himself. It would seem initially that Stevenson was ideally cast, given that he’s a tough-looking dude. But the fact is that, as an actor, he’s more fun to watch when he’s allowed to be funny and violent than when he’s required to be angry and violent (if you’ve seen “Rome” you’ll know what I mean).
And there’s all that violence. It’s hard to describe the scope, since it never lets up from beginning to end. The opening scene sets the tone pretty well: the Punisher crashes a mob banquet where his first order of business is to decapitate the family’s patriarch. He then proceeds to quickly and bloodily dispense with everyone else at the table. From the opening shot to the end of the scene, this takes maybe five minutes. In my favorite part of the movie, Frank busts into a house where a woman and her daughter are being held hostage, and punches a guy in the face so hard that he crushes the man’s skull like a meringue. That’s the kind of violence we’re dealing with here—it’d be grossly offensive if it didn’t clearly defy the laws of physics. As such, it crosses over into a Bugs Bunny cartoon with particularly fatal consequences.
“Punisher: War Zone” is what you’d get if you took “Robocop” and took out the political subtext, and every scene that didn’t involve someone getting shot. It is a giant mess of senseless violence that happens so fast it barely has time to register. Many of the scenes were lifted directly from the comic books the movie’s based on, and “War Zone” is, on the whole, an example of how that practice doesn’t always make a good movie. But you know what? It’s pretty fun. For one hour and forty-three minutes, I lost myself in a world of over-the-top acting, explosions and blood squibs that flowed with the consistency of Old Faithful. Against every fiber of my better judgment, I kinda dug it.
I didn’t get a chance to talk about the cinematography in this movie—it is really good. Steve Gainer (who was also the cinematographer for Super, another ultra-violent vigilante movie) really makes this movie look twice as classy as it needs to.
I like that this is a version of New York that appears to be peopled entirely by vampires, because nobody does anything during the day. Everything in this movie happens at night.
Is Julie Benz in anything that isn’t a genre movie or TV show? I’ve only ever known her to be in stuff that involves monsters or serial killers.
Earlier in this review, I linked to the “War Zone” episode of “How Did This Get Made?” If you really want to know more about the movie, you should definitely give it a listen. It’s a very cool (and funny) discussion.