The Punisher: War Zone (Movie) Review
Punisher: War Zone is an enjoyable mess of a movie, suffering from being perhaps a bit too faithful to the comic without realizing the comic has separate incarnations.
Garth Ennis is the main Punisher writer of the last decade or so and was sited by War Zone director Lexi Alexander as a major influence on the film. The first Punisher series Ennis wrote was a broad farce where the Punisher was still the same remorseless force of nature he always is, but every other player in the story was satirical, from the dimwit cop pursuing him to Ma Gnucci, the vengeful mafia matriarch he feeds to a polar bear( yes, a polar bear), to its high point where the Punisher finally defeats an unbeatable foe by dropping his fat neighbor on the foe’s face and suffocating him with belly fat. All dark humor with over-the-top elements (though not precisely camp). The second series Ennis did was all business, very dark, very violent and few laughs. The second time around was closer to the character’s roots as a scarred soldier taking out his survivor’s guilt on criminals.
The last Punisher film (the Thomas Jane version) took a tone a bit closer to the first Ennis run and lifted a few scenes from it. While not totally committing to humor, it did have John Travolta vamping it up as the villain and then peppered a few more serious action scenes in it. The result was an odd mix and most people didn’t seem to care for it. (Personally, I thought it was a great “had a bad day at work and I want to kill my boss” type of stress release flick.)
This time around, the humor and the dark violence are both in the movie, but kept a bit more separate. All scenes with the Punisher in them are fairly serious. All scenes with the main villains, Jigsaw and his brother Looney Bin Jim are over the top camp (and hilarious). The camp of the villains tones down a bit when the Punisher enters the room. It makes for a very odd mix, even odder than the previous Punisher film.
The script, a pedestrian affair with a smuggling MacGuffin, could have been stronger and kept things more on either the path of the funny or the path of horrible vengeance, but that’s really the only thing you can take a mild shot at in the production.
Ray Stevenson captures the character perfectly and while I liked Thomas Jane’s take, Stevenson looks like Frank Castle should. No suspension of disbelief necessary. Dominic West takes a wide left turn from his work on The Wire and delivers a flamboyant turn as Jigsaw that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Shumacher Batman flick, only it was consistent with internal logic and didn’t fall apart when the scenes got more serious. That’s not an easy thing to do. Ditto for Dough Hutchinson as the crazy bother. Yes, the villains were incongruous with the rest of the film, but they made me laugh. This was only stranger when Seinfeld alum Wayne Knight shows up in a largely serious roll. Dominic West clowning and Wayne Knight playing it straight – best file it under “against type.” Dash Mihok is 100% perfect casting as Martin Soap, the dimwitted detective from the satirical run.
The direction was also solid, although the violence level will be too graphic for some and there will likely be some “torture porn” comments. If you follow the serious version of the comic, this is consistent, if perhaps occasionally more brutal. That’s going to be a matter for personal taste, but regardless, the action is well done.
The over-all product? It’s a little all over the place. The humor is much broader than the quips of 007 and Lethal Weapon and the violence is 10x as graphic as either. Traditionally, the two things just haven’t mixed, so it’s a little hard to evaluate. I personally enjoyed it. How to put this in terms of things the mass audience might understand. Let’s say Ceasar Romero’s Joker was actually blood thirsty (but ditched the clown-theme, he’s just crazy), and a meaner version of Denzel Washington’s character from Man on Fire was hunting him, and the violence level was a little closer to Saw, that’s kind of what we’re talking about here.
The best parts of the film: Dominic West giving a mock-patriotic army recruiting pitch to various flavors of gangbangers and the very last scene, which will be on YouTube very soon, I imagine, and perfectly captures the humor of that first Garth Ennis run.
A hint to the Marvel producers: this is the second time you’ve done a Punisher movie and the second time the initial reaction has been confusion. “Welcome Back, Frank” (the first, comedic, Garth Ennis run) should only be given to the screenwriters and directors if you want a full-on farce. It’s a wonderful run, but it’s also an anomaly for the character. If you want to go dark, give the creative team everything except “Welcome Back, Frank.” The product you end up with is not only confusing to a lot of the mainstream, it doesn’t match either version of the comic and we know you’d like to sell some of the graphic novels.