Monday, June 11, 2012

A Frank Review of "Punisher: War Zone" (2008)

The Short Version? The latest variation on cinematic Punishment.
What Is It? Action-Dramedy.
Who Is In It? Titus Pullo, McNulty, Horace Goodspeed, the squad leader from Resident Evil, Newman!, Darla
Should I See It? No.

I bought 1977's The Amazing Spider-Man #175 at a flea market in the early '80s, and it introduced me to the Punisher. He was possibly my first favorite anti-hero, because I don't recall if I knew about Wolverine yet by that point. While I was already familiar with violent action cinema, this was the first time a character from that sphere had invaded my super-hero comics. Tough guys with guns were nothing new in four colors, but what set the Punisher apart was that he was an iconic costumed vigilante who showed up established super-heroic greats with his no nonsense and highly lethal brand of justice. Initially, he served to contrast the absolutes of black and white with a shade of gray. He was also a bit of a political straw man, allowing liberal writers to use his extreme example to explain why super-heroes didn't run around killing "the bad guys." However, broader pop culture rarely reflected those values, and the Punisher came to represent something closer to an idealized "good" in the minds of more right wing fans. Since super-hero comics tended to demonize the Punisher, he found liberation in his own solo comics without their moralizing, and a whole cottage industry sprang up around Punisher-style protagonists.

Most Punisher imitators fail for the same reason the Punisher himself has yet to successfully translate to the type of cinema that helped to spawn him: irrelevance. The Punisher mattered because he was the first and most iconic of his kind. His success meant he tended to have the best creators available working in his subgenre, and he held a revered status in the most popular super-heroic universe. Many of the flashiest artists of the Punisher's heyday got their start working on the character, so who cared if they went on to create imitations divorced from the Marvel Universe, the trademark costume, decent writing, and so forth. However, the Punisher franchise also overextended itself, subsisting on inferior talent and choking on rigid formula until it all fell apart. The Punisher was redeemed in the aughts by cult favorite writer Garth Ennis, first as a means to ridicule the mainstream super-hero comics that the creator hated, and then as an avenue for grindhouse action yarns too brutal and idiosyncratic for other media. These books sold to Ennis fans and Punisher fans, but they weren't really meant for public consumption. In fact, there's little that is marketably unique about the Punisher outside of comics, since his whole purpose was to represent action movie/video game tropes within comics. He is not transcendent of his milieu.

The 1989 Punisher adaptation failed by being a generic action movie that borrowed nothing but the trademark from the comics. The 2004 attempt failed because it attempted to translate a severely watered down version of Ennis' super-comic satire into a tin-eared PG-13 film. This edition fails because it follows the same blueprint, but straight without chaser, indulging in the most ridiculous and sophomoric excesses of Ennis. It is surprisingly faithful to a very specific type of comic and fan, and had the same odds of success as trying to push heroin on suburban potheads. The masses take one look at that needle, and run in the opposite direction. Also, and this is important to remember, the movie remains terrible under its own terms.

Ray Stevenson is a charmless cypher as Frank Castle. He's not supposed to be expressive, but guys like Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood didn't need to say shit to be intense motherfuckers. Stevenson looks like Steven Seagal if he got on that diet John Goodman was on that time where he lost a shit ton of weight, but looked exhausted and saggy and sad like Droopy Dog. Dominic West is a painfully dreadful ham as Jigsaw, doing the worst possible Jack Nicholson in Batman '89 Joker impersonation. Doug Hutchison as Loony Bin Jim is a dreadful Southie Hannibal Lecter with no presence, awful instincts, gut-wrenching enunciation, and the physique of a middle-schooler. You can't forget that this is the guy from Lost that married the trashy jailbait, not a psycho assassin. Wayne Knight can't be Micro, because he can never not be Wayne Knight in anything. Dash Mihok is anti-comic relief as the pathetic detective Soap. The only decent actors are Julie Benz in a thankless reprisal of her role in Rambo, and a thoroughly wasted Colin Salmon, who manages to overcome an anemic character to remind audiences that he deserves to at least be the lead in this trash.

Director Lexi Alexander and some fans defended the film as intentionally dreadful in a podcast, but barring an inflated sense of taste superiority via ironic detachment and/or copious indulging in alcohol/drugs, that doesn't wash. This is a cheap looking, derivative, cornball flick with some seriously underwhelming direction, shoddy stunts, lousy CGI marred gore effects, atrocious lighting, flaccid stunts, foul dialogue, irritating music and a humor threshold somewhere beneath the final season of whichever sketch comedy show you deem the worst. Producing something this sorry on purpose denies the audience even the slightly pleasing aroma of slow roasted hubris. A key plot point involves Castle's mission becoming morally compromised, and the filmmakers deserve credit for having the balls to not use a loophole to get the Punisher off the hook lightly. They also lacked the brains to resolve the matter in a believable, satisfying manner. That's the flick in a nutshell right there.

  • Nothing. Fuck you. No-thing. Okay, the theatrical trailer and some others from Lionsgate.

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