Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie Review: "Punisher: War Zone" by David Pretty

I'm gonna let you guys in on a little secret: film criticism is kinda bullshit.

I'm not saying that for shock value or to undermine my own efforts here, I just think that every single movie has a potential audience. Take Punisher War Zone, for example: it's tailor made for people that don’t want their entertainment to get bogged down by such pesky things as plot, character development, decent performances or logic. For the viewer who doesn't want anything to get in the way of their visceral thrills, this movie is pretty much perfect. 

Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people.

As a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool comic book nerd I've actually read the four-color exploits of the titular character from time to time. For all intents and purposes, The Punisher is Marvel's answer to the cinematic antiheroes of the Seventies like “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish.  As such, his raison d’etre is steeped in the sort of black and white moral simplicity that only comic books (and exploitation films) can get away with.

Frank Castle, a former Vietnam Vet and Special Forces operative, goes nuts when the mob kills his entire family after they witness a gangland slaying. Traumatized by the incident, Castle re-christens himself as The Punisher and then uses his military training to wage a one-man war on crime. Unfortunately, unlike fellow Marvel Universe residents like Daredevil or Spider-Man, The Punisher isn't content to just leave baddies trussed up for the police with his calling card attached. Nope, he just blows their heads off.

In War Zone, The Punisher tangles with his funnybook arch-nemesis Jigsaw, a mob boss so-named because Castle ran his face though a glass-crusher. ¡Ay, caramba! The main plot hook involves Castle mistakenly killing an undercover cop and then trying to make amends to his grieving widow and daughter, who, naturally, remind him of his own slain family. This is actually a pretty decent premise for a Punisher film but director Lexi Alexander and her triumverate of writers (Nick Santora, Matt Holloway and Arthur Marcum) don’t seem to think we have enough of an attention span to give this intriguing set up the attention and respect it deserves.

Things are not all dire, however. I think Ray Stephenson (The Book of Eli, HBO’s Rome) is physically perfect for the role of The Punisher, certainly more so than predecessors Dolph Lungren and Thomas Jane. Occasionally the Irish-born Stephenson's American accent founders a little bit but this is nearly moot since he barely has any dialogue anyway.

Along for the ride is veteran character actor Wayne Knight (T.V.’s Newman from Seinfeld) as The Punisher’s techie pal “Microchip”. The scant few line readings are great but very little time is spent exploring the character or his relationship to Castle. The delightful Julie Benz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Darla and Dexter’s squeeze Rita) is also criminally underused as the grieving Angela.

The most entertaining and inadvertently-comedic performance comes courtesy of Dominic West. As the psychotic Jigsaw he's more over the top than a field goal kicked by Superman. Between West and his on-screen brother Doug Hutchinson there’s more goombah-flavored scenery-chewing per capita here then any other film I’ve seen in recent memory. Unfortunately the hack makeup job performed on West trivializes his performance even more. They should have made him virtually impossible to look at but instead West ends up resembling a third-tier Dick Tracy villain on a Mountain Dew bender.

One thing that director Lexi Anderson does nail is The Punisher’s penchant for random and unexpected bursts of violence. Things get knee-slappin' HI-larious after Castle is saddled with a pair of equally-underwritten agents (Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok) who vainly attempt to prevent him from blowing away mobsters at the drop of a hat.  At least the film has a healthy of dollop of gallows humor, making it a great MST3K-style pick for a "it's so bad it's good" movie night.

The action scenes are stylish, inventive, brutal and well-choreographed, but are often undone by dollops of pure, unadulterated goofiness. The set-piece that kicks off the film is a prime example.  When The Punisher starts spinning upside-down on a chandelier, spraying bullets around like the world's most lethal and demented Christmas ornament, the scene becomes a confusing mix of Matrix-flavored awesome and wanton eye-rollery.   

In the comics The Punisher was typically just used as a foil for the good guys and attempts to feature him as a main character often fell flat. There’s a reason for that and Punisher: War Zone certainly shows why. Frank Castle is kind of a one-note character and he doesn’t make for a particularly compelling protagonist.

Tilt: up.

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