Sunday, December 07, 2008

Zaki's Review: Punisher: War Zone

First thing first: Punisher: War Zone, the third attempt to craft a film franchise around Marvel Comics' skull-chested vigilante, is not a great movie. Nor is it necessarily even a good movie. What it is, however, is a pitch-perfect Punisher movie, and after the two previous go-rounds ranged from abysmal (1989's Dolph Lundgren starrer) to just mediocre (the 2004 Thomas Jane/John Travolta flick), that's more than enough.

For the uninitiated, a brief overview, courtesy of the comics from whence he originated: Frank Castle was a former military man happy to put that life behind him and spend time with his wife and kids, when a chance encounter with random mob violence left his family dead and set him on a bullet-riddled path of vengeance that cut a swath through all manner of organized crime.

Although he started out as a Spider-Man villain when introduced in the mid 1970s, by the early '90s the Punisher had blossomed into a fan-favorite anti-hero who, at the height of his popularity, supported three monthly titles and made regular guest appearances all over the comic world. It's been a long time now since his popularity plateaued, but the Punisher has nevertheless been a constant presence on comic racks for several decades, and when you stop and think about it, he really should be the easiest of all Marvel properties from which to launch a low-risk, high-reward feature franchise.

No superpowers, no expensive CGI, just lots of guns, lots of blood bags, and lots of squibs. And yet it's taken until the third incarnation of the Punisher in as many films to finally get it somewhat close to right. Go figure. This time around Brit actor Ray Stevenson (late of HBO's Rome) steps into Frank Castle's skull-emblazoned kevlar. Though he doesn't utter so much as a single line of dialogue until almost a half hour into the movie, Stevenson impressively inhabits the role in a way that neither of his two predecessors did (though I didn't mind Tom Jane either), and he looks for all the world like a John Romita Jr. comic book drawing come to life.

The film opens with the Punisher making a blood-drenched appearance at a mobster's acquittal party, after which he tracks mafioso Billy "The Beaut" Russati (The Wire's Domic West, in full-on over-the-top "goombah" mode) to a nearby glass-recycling facility. The words "Punisher" and "glass-recycling" should pretty much tell us where things head from there, and before too long the Punisher's newest nemesis, the grotesque Jigsaw is born. For those who might (misguidedly) be looking for one, there is a skeleton of a plot in all of this, with Castle's angst over the accidental shooting of an undercover agent leading to his potentially hanging up the skull and guns (spoiler alert: he doesn't).

But let's be honest here, by the time we meet Jigsaw's even-more insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) -- who's a cannibal, to boot -- and see the Punisher use an RPG to blow up a Parkour-powered criminal mid-leap, we know exactly the tone of over-the-top, cartoonish violence they're shooting for (no pun intended). This is a winning formula that comic writer Garth Ennis plied to great success with his "Welcome Back, Frank" storyline in 2000, which in turn led to a hundred-plus issue tenure on the title that's as close to "definitive" as the character has ever had.

 Like the Ennis run, the film realizes that Castle is essentially a one-note character who's not especially deep, nor prone to much in the way of introspection, so to try and force an arc onto him is a bit like the square peg and the round hole. What War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander (who, as if being a female action director wasn't exotic enough, is also a kickboxing champion in her native Germany), does so effectively is to knowingly backburner character development and attempts at depth in favor of heaping gobs of blood, explosions, bloody explosions, and explosions of blood.

In fact, in a production that mostly steps right within its limited parameters, one of the few stumbles is in delving a little too deeply into Castle trying to make amends with the dead fed's young daughter (Stephanie Janusauskas) and widow (Julie Benz, essentially playing the same role she did in January's Rambo). Predictably -- if nonsensically -- the little girl forms an out-of-the-blue attachment to Castle (I mean, he only killed her father, after all...), while he in turn sees her as a surrogate for his own lost daughter. This leads to a bit where, as he's about to head out to enact some payback, she holds his hand and pleads "don't go."

Yes, it's every bit as excruciating as it sounds, and far squirmier than any "chair leg through the eye" moments the movie can muster. Still, this is a very minor complaint in a film that exhibits such unabashed pride in its pulpy roots. Punisher: War Zone proudly wears its ambitions on its sleeve, and delivers exactly what its title promises. What else can you ask for? B-

1 comment:

J.R. LeMar said...

I loved it. I bought the DVD. I think if this had been made before the Thomas Jane film (which I thought was terrible) it would have been a hit.