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Non-Review Review: Punisher – WarZone

Punisher: WarZone is not a good film. But it’s not necessarily a poorly-made film, either. There’s a fair amount of skill on display here, but the problem is that the movie never seems to be sure how seriously it wants to be taken. Perhaps the closest point of reference is one of the well-made Steven Seagal films: it spends a great deal of its time delivering what amounts to ridiculousness while offering itself to the audience with a stoic face. It’s a fairly entertaining piece of disposable action fare, but it’s nothing to write home about.

Oh shoot, it's another Punisher movie...

The Punisher has been adapted three times into film. It’s hard to believe that there are those out there who still think he has an audience. The character is essentially a comic book relic, left over from the dark and gloomy days of the nineties, when superheroes like Superman appeared to have lost their touch and a willingness to take life was all it took to give a character “an edge”. The default superhero of the time was a guy with more pouches than a posse of kangaroos and guns bigger than Schwarzenegger. If you could fit “death”, “kill”, “gore” or some combination of the same into your superhero codename, all the better.

Urban vigilante Frank Castle was not created during this period – he’d been a minor recurring Spider-Man and Daredevil foe before it – but he really reached a mass audience as comic book companies forced their darker and edgier characters to front and centre. Over the decade, he was everywhere. He was hard to escape. He frequently tussled with the big league superhero types, despite his defining characteristic being that he carried a really big gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. Sure, occasionally the character would find a decent run (most notably the work of author Garth Ennis), but he mostly just stumbled blindly around. He was an angel (of death) at one point, and has recently been made into a monster (“Frankencastle”), which gives an indication of how lost the character can end up.

Aside from his mostly one-note character, his biggest problem is that he isn’t a superhero. Marvel set up The Punisher MAX to tell the story of the character in a world without costumed characters, but in mainstream Marvel the guy sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the movie would have been better to completely drop the superhero angle in favour of something a little noir. In fairness, there are hints that the director Lexi Alexander would just as easily forget about the tights. The Punisher’s famous “skull insignia” on his chest isn’t brightly painted on a shirt, but slowly fading off his body armour. The film is shot in a desaturated style, leaving everything green and grimy, sapping the brighter colours from the film.

However, the problem is that not everyone seems to agree. There’s a card-carrying supervillain involved, with a catchy codename (“you call me… Jigsaw”) and some large-scale sinister goings-on (he’s smuggling a “biological package”). Although that sort of villainy can fit the action movie, it draws conscious attention to the film’s pulpy roots – it doesn’t help that actor Dominic West pulls a lot of his portrayal of Jigsaw from Tommy Lee Jones’ godawful Two-Face in Batman Forever. The manner in which he colourfully takes chunks out of the scenery seems decidedly at odds with the grainy approach to the rest of the film – it leaves the viewer somewhat confused and unsure what to make of what they are seeing.

Some of my captions can be quite... pun-ishing...

And though Ray Stevenson makes the most of the unforgiving lead role (choosing to play Castle as a stoic and silent type), the movie itself seems uncertain of what to make of the lethal vigilante. Is he something of a wish fulfilment figure, or a tragic character who has wandered far from sanity. The best approaches in the comic books are willing to explore the implications of his actions and his own fragile mental state – they dare to ask whether Castle is a hero or a villain. Here, the film seems to flipflop, afraid to commit to one idea or the other. We’re told by a cop that Frank does “what me and you can only fantasise about”. And yet this a man who thinks it is a good idea to throw a guy into a bunch of recycled glass and turn the crusher on. Frank smiles when grinding the mafiosa up with shards of broken glass. This is not a well man – and yet the movie seems to want us to see him as a good guy.

More than that, the movie attempts to add shading to his character by plaguing him with guilty and uncertainty – over the death of an undercover agent. However, this thread is never really dealt with in any real manner and seems to exist solely to grant the character a chance to seem mopey. Dark and mopey? Frank Castle spends the movie acting like an emo kid. Of course, no points for guessing how the plot thread plays out, with the ending ignoring the implications of the character’s actions completely once it has served the purpose of connecting Castle with the agent’s widow and child.

All that said, most of the film works quite well from a technical point of view. The stunts are well-choreographed. The atmosphere is intentionally overwhelming. As mentioned above (and it deserves repeating) Ray Stevenson is great. Plus it’s nice to see Wayne Knight and Colin Salmon in anything. The action sequences are effective and fairly smartly put together – it’s just that the plot they are strung up on is absolutely terrible. The CGI is fairly weak at moments, but the movie seems to have (mostly) stuck by practical effects. Which is great.

Even some of the more awkward moments are still charming – watching how Frank deals with a parkour gang (in a scene which seems designed as a statement on Casino Royale and its infamous parkour scene), or Jigsaw’s “call to arms” to a variety of immigrant gangs (“be all you can be”) can be quite entertaining. There are moments, though, when you aren’t sure whether the movie is playing itself straight or is lampooning its own ridiculousness. “It’s a &^*%ed system you’re sworn to protect,” a cop is told at one point, in earnest. Frank comforts a dying colleague with the promise: “I see you anywhere near hell, I’ll kick your ass.” In a moment of existential angst the character declares in frustration, “Sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God.” Stevenson delivers his lines with a po-faced seriousness, but it’s hard to be sure with the movie is intentionally veering off into cheesiness or if these are just really awkward lines.

Taken for what it is – a no-brain action movie – the film is efficiently made. It’s not actively good, but it’s not truly terrible. Although it’s far too conventional for its own good (the script might have been better had it embraced some of the moral ambiguity rather than skirting around it), its root problem is the assumption that all comic book adaptations need to be superhero films. They don’t.

But try telling that to Jigsaw in his minx coat.

2 Responses

  1. Oh my God, I love, love, love, love this movie. This movie solves every moral problem inherent to watching slasher movies; you’ve got Castle in the role of the unstoppable killing machine, and scores of scumbag criminals standing in for idiotic teens (for whom we still feel pity because they’re just teens). Problem solved, enjoy watching the massacre.

    There’s nothing really redeeming about the film at all aside from Alexander’s penchant for photographing mayhem clearly and precisely, and Stevenson’s utterly badass acting (though I frankly think he’s just being himself half the time). But then again there doesn’t need to be.

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