Marvel Comics has had a pretty good run in Hollywood these past few years, with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk films bringing in both big box-office bucks and mountains of merchandising cash. Properties like these are easy sells to both parents and kids, the latter of which sweeten the pot with their subsequent demands for any and all related action figures, video games, and colorful underwear manufacturers can crank out (yet, somewhat ironically, still don’t bother to buy the comic books upon which these films are based).
Yes, Marvel (who now produces their own films) has an endless stable of kid-friendly characters from which to draw upon, ensuring at least one blockbuster a year, which will hopefully allot them enough funds to keep quietly cranking out gleefully violent and sadistic adult-friendly fare like Lexi Alexander’s “Punisher: War Zone”. Ray Stevenson (HBO’s “Rome”) dons the white skull this time out, as the series gets its third reboot in as many films. Here’s a case, however, where the third time is the charm.
The film opens with Frank Castle (aka; The Punisher) crashing a celebration party for a recently acquitted mob boss, and massacring most of the guests, including up-and-coming mobster, Billy Rissoti (Dominic West), who Castle dispatches by tossing into an industrial glass grinder. Frank later learns that one of the guests he killed was an undercover federal agent, and, deeply anguished by the fact that he’d murdered an innocent, he decides to hang up his Uzis and retire from the punishment game. In the midst of a massive police manhunt for The Punisher, the horribly mutilated Billy Rissoti resurfaces as “Jigsaw”, and kidnaps the fallen agent’s wife and child, drawing Frank out of retirement for one more blood-soaked go’ round with the guilty.
Martial artist-turned-director, Lexi Alexander, gets The Punisher. She knows Frank Castle inside and out. She knows the city he lives in (New York, not Tampa Bay, for crying out loud), she knows the creeps he hangs out with (Wayne Knight, of Seinfeld fame, turns up as Frank’s arms dealer, Microchip), and she certainly knows the brutal means with which he doles out his punishment. Most of all, she gets the joke, and thoroughly embraces the sheer lunacy of the character and his ultra-violent world. While other filmmakers seem determined to drag their four color subjects kicking and screaming into the real world, Alexander opts to spill copious amounts of blood (and I do mean copious. This is one of the most violent R-rated films I’ve ever seen) against a canvas of day-glow aesthetics, the likes of which have not been seen since Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”.
Alexander populates her film with an ensemble that seems to share her unique vision, with the beefy British actor, Stevenson, who is nothing less than thoroughly intimidating as Castle, and achieves this mostly through grimaces, grunts, and an expression so dour it could spoil milk. Dominic West is the yin to Stevenson’s yang. Despite an ill-advised Brooklyn accent that would make Rosie Perez blush, West nails the histrionics and psychosis of the Jigsaw character. While some would probably consider his performance over-the-top, I felt it fit the tone of this particular film perfectly (although, at times, it did veer dangerously close to Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face territory).
While “The Dark Knight” is now the standard by which all comic book movies are currently judged, it’d be unfair to compare that film to Punisher: War Zone. The greatest success of Chris Nolan’s film is the way in which it makes the character of Batman almost plausible. The fun thing about Alexander’s film is how she goes out of her way to make The Punisher as cartoonish and implausible as possible. The Dark Knight is serious filmmaking for serious people, while Punisher: War Zone is simply content to be as juvenile, irresponsible, and as guiltily entertaining as the material upon which it is based. The Dark Knight may be a great movie, but Punisher: War Zone will make for great drinking games, and is destined to be a cult-classic.