Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Punisher: War Zone

"Oh God, now I've got brains splattered all over me" - The last line of dialogue one hears in Punisher: War Zone.

If there was ever a movie that needed to close with such a line, it's this one. I'm going to be blunt, I did not enjoy watching this movie. There's not a single moment or frame of film that possesses an idea, or something that resembles one. War Zone is a 100+ minute vomitorium that is plotted in such a way that we can skip ahead to the next scene where someone's head explodes. I would not want to meet this movie's fans in a dark alley. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn't want to meet the filmmakers responsible, either.

This is Marvel's third attempt to bring their Punisher character from the comics to life, but don't worry if you haven't seen the previous films (and you probably shouldn't). War Zone gives us just enough explanation in brief flashbacks to inform the uninitiated as to why its hero is running around, killing any and every criminal and bad mobster stereotype who crosses his path. Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) used to be a family man until the day his entire family was wiped out by criminals during a picnic. Now he calls himself the Punisher, lives in an underground base below a subway tunnel, and spends his time moping and looking forlorn when he's not snapping necks and blowing people into dust with his trusty shoulder mounted rocket launcher. The movie makes a small attempt to bring some moral questions into what Frank does. He kills an undercover FBI agent early on while raiding a mobster's hideout, and he gets kind of choked up about it. He even tries to apologize to the dead agent's wife by offering to let her kill him in front of her young daughter, who's not much more than seven. (Gee, how thoughtful.) Fortunately, his buddy and weapons supplier, Microchip (Wayne Knight), is there to remind him that the city needs his special brand of vigilante justice. That's about as deep as this movie ever gets. The Punisher is supposedly not superhuman, like other comic book heroes, although Castle does at one point punch a hole in a guy's face with his fist without blinking. That's gotta count for something.

The hole in the face is actually one of the more subtler means of killing the Punisher uses. He also stabs someone in the eye and through the back of the head with a chair leg, decapitates I'd say about 50 or so extras, snaps a lot of necks, fires a lot of bullets, and pushes a guy into a bottle recycling machine which ends up hideously disfiguring the criminal's face. This mobster used to be known as Billy the Beaut (Dominic West), but after his face gets shredded beyond recognition during his encounter with the Punisher, he comes to be known as Jigsaw. He's the main villain in this installment, and West plays Jigsaw as if he studied Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker in 1989's Batman a little too closely. He's frequently campy and over the top, but nothing he says or does is as devilishly funny as he seems to think it is. He's backed up by his insane, cannibalistic brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison). They want to rally the city's criminals against the Punisher, and kidnap the wife and daughter of the undercover agent, since the agent was pretending to work for Jigsaw and hid some money from him. Meanwhile, there are some agents trying to track the Punisher down and arrest him, but end up helping him. And meanwhile...

You know what, I'm going to stop right there. This isn't a movie about plot, this is a body count film. Each scene is a set up for either the Punisher, Jigsaw, or Loony Bin Jim to kill someone (or a large group of faceless extras) in horrific and graphic ways, which is captured in a detailed manner by director Lexi Alexander. When I reviewed Transporter 3 last week, I complained about the trend of action films using rapid cuts that prevented us from seeing what we paid to see. Now we have an action movie that is competently shot and edited, but shows us things I probably did not need to see. The bare bones plot pretty much crumbles when logical thought is applied to it, and all we're left with are a series of death scenes that would be more at home in a cheesy 1980s slasher film than an action movie getting a theatrical release in 2008. The whole enterprise feels dated and exploitive. I did not feel anything for Frank Castle, nor did I cheer for him when he started taking out the bad guys. I fear that this is intentional. We're supposed to get a rush out of the sadistic violence on display, and not feel anything else. I say if you see one exploding head, it kind of loses its impact the 50th time you've seen it.

Whenever I'm faced with a movie that seems exploitive to me, I find myself asking who is this movie made for? The obvious answer would be fans of the Punisher comic book. But then I'm faced with another question - What is the appeal of the Punisher to begin with? In the three films I've seen based on his character, he's never come across as anyone particularly interesting. He's a guy who shoots first, doesn't ask questions, then shoots some more just for the heck of it. (And if there's time, he decapitates a head or two.) I can see the appeal of other comic book heroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man, heck even Hellboy. And hey, Batman is just as tortured as the Punisher usually is, but at least he gets to drive the Batmobile. The Punisher just hangs out in a dank room, waiting for the right time to kill people. Comic books are a form of escapism fantasy, and I can't imagine who would want to fantasize about being a depressed and brooding vigilante who is as sadistic as the bad guys he fights.

I have been able to enjoy movies that went over the top in their violence, but Punisher: War Zone offers absolutely nothing of value. It doesn't stand out in any way, and it hasn't been made with much care either in the technical sense or in the performances. The movie is sure to have its fans and defenders, and I say more power to them. They were able to dig through the muck that is this movie, and find something redeeming. I sure wish I could. Call me a prude if you must, just don't call me if the Punisher should return again, which the ending certainly seems to hint at.

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