By John Lichman
[Punisher: War Zone is now playing in theaters.]
There's definitely an argument to be made that 2008 was the point when most of the world recognized that a decent cast and a somewhat coherent story could a "comic book movie" make (to say nothing of box office returns). As Iron Man is one of the year's highest grossing films, along with Hancock and the Hellboy sequel, then clearly we're at a turning point.
So it's fitting that we close the year out with the third attempt to put The Punisher out not only as a film, but as a potential brand. The story keeps the basics: Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) is an ex-military man who family was gunned down in front of him after they witnessed a mob hit in Central Park. Five years later, he's the Punisher, actively seeking revenge on every major New York crime family responsible for the loss of his loved ones, as well as, symbolically, for anyone else who was denied revenge. (Oddly, this is the first film of the three that keeps Frank's origin so close to the original while ignoring his service in the Vietnam War.)
Unlike the previous Punisher installments, War Zone is set in New York and focuses solely on the Italian mafia—sprinkled with bits of other ethnic flair (i.e. Irish, Chinese, Russian and a Jamaican meth-addict with a brogue). It barely takes four minutes before we've gotten our first neck snap—one of nearly a dozen or more. It's a few minutes of thrash-metal bliss as Stevenson glumly blows out knee caps, breaks another neck with his legs, snaps someone's arm and then does a mystifying 360 spin on a chandelier while rocking the dual automatic weapons. As Castle is taking his bloody revenge, Billy "The Beaut" Russoti (Dominic West) hightails it out of the carnage.
West chews scenes as Billy, but more so when he morphs into Jigsaw after being dumped into a conveniently located glass crusher/plot device. Stevenson's role is to be the silent, blunt object that batters through the frame with guns blazing or explosions following close behind, while West unfortunately got the memo that he'd be playing the Marvel variant of Two-Face: the Tommy Lee Jones version, though. He dances around in gaudy outfits and always stares at the camera a bit too long with a perpetually bloodshot eye, almost as if he's begging director Lexi Alexander to say "Cut. OK, now let's do it again—but less campy this time."
Unfortunately, she never does.
That's ultimately the problem with Marvel's repeated attempts at reviving this character, who, in the shadow of Death Wish and the 1980s vigilante action films, is obsolete. Even in the comic universe, The Punisher struggles to fit in with super-heroes and regular villains, whether he's an assassin for God with a weapon-producing trench coat or is battling the Russian army for a nuclear weapon. It's ironic that in a world of rubber men and radioactive spider bites, a man with a gun is the hardest to take seriously.
Addressing complaints that the Thomas Jane version was too "light" and PG-13, Alexander (and Lions Gate) clearly did anything they could for a hard R. It's almost on a Joe Bob Briggs level from the cringe-inducing puns ("I'd like to ... AXE ... you some questions," followed by the requisite use of said weapon) to Riki-Oh levels of ultra camp violence.
War Zone's best moments come from Dash Mihok and Doug Hutchison as, respectively, the bumbling Detective Soap and Jigsaw's brother "Loony Bin" Jim. The character actors do their best to energize this formulaic shoot-em-up in ways pathetic and whiny (Mihok) or through odd plays on Hannibal Lecter and kidneys (Hutchison). Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with the film aside from the usual problem of "giving humanity to the Big Bad Man" via a sub-plot where Frank Castle feels remorse about killing a good guy.
And of course, the Good Guy has a daughter who reminds Frank of his kids. And of course, that means emotion and emoting—all things Ray Stevenson isn't supposed to do here. Leave that to West, saddled with a Leatherface mask and white leather suits. The highlight of this being West's eventual "gathering the troops" speech, which looks incredibly like Mickey Rourke's monologue from Spun.
But still, there's something missing from Punisher: War Zone and it is hard to explain. They introduce side-characters like Micro (Wayne "Newman" Knight) as references to the early 90s, but you know he's nothing more than hostage fodder. Stevenson is grim and dark, but flashbacks to his pre-Punish days are like parodies—everything is lighter and he even has brown hair! While not nearly as unintentionally funny as LISTEN EGGROLL promises to be, War Zone has a charm to it—an overtly violent-for-the-sake-of-violence charm that's perfect for action nerds and gore hounds.
Just don't expect there to be a fourth film.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.