Monday, 2 March 2009

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Jesus, enough with the neon.

So, after mentally preparing with the first two Punisher films a few months ago, I've finally got around to seeing the third Punisher film. The director, Lexi Alexander, promised that this is the one that finally gets it right, fo' reals this time. Third time's a charm. I don't know about that, I'd consider it the most flawed but also the most interesting of the three Punisher movies.

I've got to preface this by saying that as far as I'm concerned, the Punisher: MAX series is the definitive book on the Punisher. Some people prefer the humour of the Marvel Knights books but, from what I've read of it (and it's not much, mainly just Welcome Back Frank) I prefer Punisher: MAX which, while more serious, still has it's own brand of pitch black humour. Whichever series you prefer, Ennis' run on Punisher was consistently one of the best Marvel books on the stands, one that re-invented Frank Castle as an almost supernatural force of vengeance. A killing machine with no remorse, pity or capacity for self reflection. Most of the other Punisher books are shit on toast. And really bad toast, like moldy Wonderbread or something.

This time the Punisher is played by Ray Stevenson who played Titus Pullo in Rome. This is a bit of casting I never would have thought of in a million years, but it's pretty much perfect. He is a guy who looks big, tough and mean, but his eyes convey a lot of emotion. He doesn't say much, in fact it's a good twenty minutes into the film before he says a single word, unless you count crying in a graveyard. Don't let that crying fool you though, he's a tough bastard. I mean, have you ever reset your broken nose with a pencil? Frank Castle has. Don't mess with him.

He's introduced in a way similar to the '89 Punisher, busting into a crime boss's mansion and killing everybody. They don't waste time on the origin story because who gives a fuck? During this opening sequence you realise this movie is crazy violent. He shoves a chair leg through a guy's eye socket, cuts off heads, breaks a woman's neck and of course he shoots a whole lot of guys. During the rest of the movie a lot of people get their heads literally blown off, even a nice old lady. Some of the acts of extreme violence are taken directly from the comics, such as when The Punisher tosses a guy onto a spiked fence and then jumps down onto his head. Didn't think I'd ever see that on the big screen. He's like the Jason Voorhees of movie vigilantes.

A few other characters from the comics also make an appearance. Maginty, a black Irish dude with dreads, has inexplicably been made the leader of a gang of parkour meth-addicts. I thought there'd be an awesome parkour chase like in District B13 or Casino Royale but it didn't happen. Frank doesn't go in for that frilly shit. He's too weighed down with body armour and guns. His nerdy sidekick Micro also appears, played by Wayne Knight, and convinces the Punisher to continue his righteous work when he's ready to give up.

The villain of the piece is Billy Russo, a narcissistic mobster who gets tossed into a big open pit of broken glass during a gun fight in a recycling plant. Seems like a serious safety issue, but it's a mob-run plant so it's no surprise they've cut corners here and there. It's a pretty nasty way to go, and it's not like they cut away after a few seconds, it goes on for a while. He survives, but the surgeons do a pretty crappy job stitching his face together. I mean, I could probably do better. So he decides to go by the name Jigsaw, bust his annoying brother Loony Bin Jim out of a scary movie asylum and take over the city. Because that's what villains do.

During the battle in the recycling plant, Frank accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. You'd think that kind of stuff would happen to him all the time, but he's pretty upset about it. He tries to apologise to the guy's wife (by giving her a bunch of money) but she pulls a gun on him. Right as she's about to shoot him the daughter comes out asking for her crayons. Talk about bad timing, is this kid stupid or what? Unsurprisingly the wife and daughter get targeted by Jigsaw and his goons (something about some hidden money, I don't know) and Frank has to try and save them.

There's also another FBI agent who teams up with the Punisher Task Force (one guy in the basement of the police station) to try and track Frank Castle down. The cops don't make it easy because they are more than happy to look the other way while Frank cleans up the streets. Even the solitary member of the Punisher Task Force (spoiler) is helping Frank. There's a pretty funny bit where a mobster surrenders to the FBI agent and out of nowhere the Punisher blows the guy's face clean off. I thought it was funny anyway. Kind of scary that we are supposed to root for this guy.

Jisaw is played by Dominic West, who played Detective McNulty in the former Official-Best-Show-on-Television The Wire. Throw a few more ex-HBO actors in there and we could have a re-union. I'm sure you could fit James Gandolfini and Ian McShane in there somewhere. West is a good actor on the show, but here he hams it up like he's a villain they cut from Batman Forever or something. There's a painful bit where he goose-steps around in dress whites, uniting the different gangs against the Punisher by giving a rousing militaristic speech in front of a waving American flag. Do we really need that goofy shit? I think the cartoony, exaggerated violence speaks for itself. I mean, the Punisher punches a big hole in a guy's face and blows up a guy with a bazooka while he's doing a cartwheel in mid-air. Now that's funny.

Lexi Alexander lends a suitably dark, gritty look to the film, but what the fuck is up with all the neon? Every single scene is bathed in it. Blue, yellow, purple, green... all the colours of the rainbow. Even when Frank visits a church it's got a big purple neon cross behind the altar, with green rope lighting running along the altar steps. A bit tacky for the house of God, I don't think he'd appreciate all that crap. Apparently it was an attempt to capture the look of the comics, but it looked more like a Vegas casino. There's also a lot of metal and thrash guitars that kick in during action sequences, I would have preferred some simple atmospheric John Carpenter style stuff but whatever.

So this is a film that gets some right (the Punisher himself, the outrageous violence) and some wrong (goofy villains, all the fucking neon). It looks like the perfect Punisher film is still some way off. I hope they make a sequel to this one (Barracuda as the villain, please) but I doubt it considering how badly it flopped. Maybe we'll have another reboot in a few years, and hopefully it will be based on Archie Meets the Punisher. Either way I'll keep watching them.

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