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Not Comics: Jeff Checks Out Punisher: War Zone

Jeff Lester

[Warning: I intend to spoil plot points from the movie Punisher: War Zone–to the extent anyone can spoil anything in a movie called Punisher: War Zone; also, technically it’s misleading to call them ‘plot points’ since that suggests Punisher: War Zone has what one could call a ‘plot,’ so really I guess I should be warning you I intend on spoiling ‘events’ from the movie Punisher: War Zone–so if you really do intend on seeing the movie stop reading and go catch it now because it won’t be in theaters more than two weeks, tops.]

I saw Punisher: War Zone the other day with my pal Robson and two friends we helped sneak in to the theater, Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo Premium. Possibly due to keeping such fine company, I enjoyed the movie as bad-but-entertaining, the type of flick that keeps the gunfire and gore abundant (reminding me of last year’s grindhousey Rambo flick which was also bad-but-entertaining), and is clever enough to introduce a gang of parkour-using scumbags solely so one of them can be blown apart by a rocket launcher in mid-roof-to-roof somersault.

Ray Stephenson from Rome is Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, and Dominic West from The Wire is Jigsaw, a.k.a. Billy Russoti; and I confess I found their presences a little distressing, as if this flick was commissioned by another premium movie channel for the express intention of subliminally soiling HBO’s reputation. In fact, although I suspect it’s unintentional, Punisher: War Zone also made me think of The Sopranos: not only does West seem to be doing the longest Paulie Walnuts imitation ever committed to celluloid, but at about two-thirds mark, the horror gore, the crime cliches, and the very big can of beer I was drinking convinced me that Cleaver, the terrible movie made by Christopher Moltisanti in the final season of The Sopranos, would’ve been more than a little like P:WZ. In the context of the movie, West’s performance works, and while I think Stephenson plays The Punisher as a sad guy who gets very, very angry when it should really be the other way around, I thought he was fine.

In fact, I feel like I had more faith in his acting than the filmmakers: although the Punisher works best as a stoic character, he says far too little in this film, and a lot of it variations on “I’m sorry,” since part of the story’s hook is that Frank, in taking out a gang near the beginning of the film, kills an undercover fed, tries to make it up to the surviving family (Stephanie Janusauskas, as the young daughter and Julie Benz, with her patented post-Angel gamut of angry defiant weepiness, weepy angry defiance, or defiant weepy anger, depending on what the situation calls for, as the widow), and then swears to quit being the Punisher–an idea the film takes seriously for little more than forty-five seconds. Sadly, there’s next-to-nothing like the bit in the trailer where Stephenson says, “Sometimes, I think I’d like to get my hands on God,” with muted anger and grief and conviction. I don’t know if it’s just because the filmmakers didn’t have much faith in Stephenson’s accent (which does indeed slide all over the place in some of his longer line readings) or couldn’t be assed to cherry-pick Castle’s better lines from Garth Ennis’ run, but it renders this incarnation of The Punisher little more than a glum cipher.

(And as long as I’ve got my bitch on, I’m still baffled why every film incarnation of The Punisher insists that the character have the darkest hair possible–as if that’s the character’s superpower, or main visual motif–but it does Stephenson few favors: he looks very much like the older, grizzled vet Ennis’ Max run makes him out to be until you notice the Reagan-colored hair on his head and then he seems silly and vain.)

But to return to my main point, which is one of general praise: rocket-launcher meets parkour jerk. Shotgun to a guy in a chair. Room of waiting bad guys introduced to a grenade launcher. A “one lives, one dies” choice where one does, in fact, die. Excellent lighting on a scene-to-scene basis, even if it doesn’t hold together throughout the film. Proof of human cloning, as Doug Hutchison is a tiny, tiny replica of Frederic Forrest apparently grown from fingernail and hair clippings. Multiple beheadings. The woman behind me and Robson who laughed at every single line in the movie and also yelled helpful advice to the screen like, “Kill him!” Machine-gun pistols. Enthusiastic audio mixing, particularly when broken bones or snapped tendons are involved. The occasional Garth Ennis line. Mark Camacho, the poor man’s Paul Giamatti. The scenes between Frank and the daughter.

Overall, Punisher: War Zone is executed with such craft and devotion to clearing the very low bar set for it that I can understand why Robson mistook it for a good movie, rather than a very good bad movie: it’s easy enough to overlook that the movie throws in a plethora of characters to distract from the movie’s go-nowhere story and lack of character arcs for all involved, that it sets up situations that make no sense even by its own logic, that it can’t quite shake the tone of exhaustion from the silly stuff, and the sense of silliness from the world-weary stuff. The movie is all blown-up with nowhere to go.

Financial failure notwithstanding, Punisher: War Zone is more likely than not a snapshot of the current state of the American Action Movie, the production equivalent of Disney’s It’s A Small World: directed by a German, produced by an Israeli, starring three guys from the United Kingdom, and crewed by apparently the entire French-Canadian population of Quebec and Montreal. While not that a good Punisher movie–again, considering all the material Ennis has put into print about the character, it’s shocking how truly far away from that goal the movie is–based on the weekend box office, Punisher: War Zone is probably going to be about as good as we’re ever going to get. I give it an enthusiastic OKAY, particularly if you’ve got some beers in you and are looking for entertaining junk.

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