This is Hollywood’s third stab at making a movie out of the Punisher, an ultra-violent comic book character known mostly for his love of guns and a tendency to kill criminals rather than bothering with expensive things like fair trials. Each attempt at bringing him to the screen has been slightly better than the last, but only slightly. Thomas Jane’s version was marginally less awful than Dolph Lundgren’s 80s abortion and this latest, Ray Stevenson starring incarnation is incrementally less laughable than the one Jane fell into. Should this trend continue, by the character’s tenth iteration I will be able to give a Punisher movie a good review. Let’s hope it never comes to that.
Yet credit where credit is due. This is an improvement. Thomas Jane should have been the perfect Punisher, but he was wasted on a movie helmed by a Travolta-humping buffoon. Ray Stevenson fares slightly better in War Zone, he’s nearly credible as the gun-toting character and that’s due almost entirely to two, specific things Punisher: War Zone does better than any of its previous Punishing brothers.
First, it doesn’t waste time trying to explain or make us feel bad for Frank Castle. When we meet Castle he’s already The Punisher: a black-clad, heavily-armed vigilante who has spent the past five years roaming the streets and murdering bad guys while a grateful police force gleefully looks the other way. The movie spends no more than two minutes, spliced throughout the film, explaining his origins. Since his origins are the boring, re-treaded stuff of every other revenge story, it’s a blessing.
Second reason, and this is the one desperate Punisher fans are most likely to latch on to, it’s violent. Ulta-violent. Not just violent, but also gory. Over the top, completely ridiculous, people’s heads explode in a shower of goo every time they get shot, gory. I’m not endorsing violence in movies here, but the one thing that set The Punisher apart from the other comic books out there jostling in line, waiting for Hollywood adaptation, is that he’s a super-violent, psychotic killer. He’s not Batman or Superman or Spider-Man. He’s not trying to bring anyone to justice. He simply wants the bad guys dead. He only goes after criminals, sure. But he’s not nice about it. If you’re going to bother making a Punisher movie in the first place, then you need lots of violence. For the first time a Punisher movie gets that right.
Unfortunately those two things are just about the only things Punisher: War Zone has going for it. In nearly every other conceivable facet director Lexi Alexander’s movie is a failure. The problems start with the movie’s script, which doesn’t really have a particularly interesting Punisher story for us to ride shotgun on. It’s a small, small story. This seems like it might be a Tuesday in the life of The Punisher, not some special event worthy of telling in a movie. Maybe they were shooting for something intimate and deeply personal but this movie doesn’t have the kind of emotional depth necessary to connect on that level. Brief moments in which Alexander seems to be grasping for more, as in a scene in which Castle convincingly growls “sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God,” hint at the tantalizing possibility of something deeper here, but the film always quickly snaps back to the world of the absurd.
Absurdity, though clouded by dim lighting and deadly serious line delivery, is absolutely the order of the day. This is a movie in which a chair leg is shoved through a man’s head, not an intimate story of redemption. This is the sort of movie in which dropping a bad guy into a vat of broken glass won’t kill him, but instead form him into a super-villain who will inevitably rename himself something appropriately comicbooky, start wearing costumes, monologuing, and then set out for revenge against our hero. That villain is a man who eventually chooses the name Jigsaw and is played by baddie default Dominic West. I guess they couldn’t afford Sean Bean. West’s performance as Jigsaw is eerily similar to what Tommy Lee Jones did as Two-Face in Batman Forever, and if that comparison hasn’t made you vomit a little… wait there’s more!
Punisher: War Zone’s set design also has a weirdly Batman Forever feel. Frank Castle is properly dark and gritty, yet the rest of the movie is entirely slathered in strange lighting colors which simply do not exist in nature. The fog always seems to glow hot pink or green, depending on what hue will seem most striking in the shot behind Punisher. Maybe this movie exists in the future, after a nuclear holocaust when our precipitation has all gone radioactive. I don’t know, I’m guessing. Except that doesn’t explain why Wayne Knight, as the movie’s de facto superhero weapons dealer, insists on lighting his gun cabinets with purple fluorescents. It doesn’t seem to be the best way to show off your merchandise. Who wants to buy an AK-47 when it’s the same shade as the Grape Ape? It’s as if someone saw Batman Forever and then thought: “Hey I wonder what this movie would look like if it were rated-R,” and then designed their sets accordingly.
Look we’re three separate Punisher movies into this character. I know Punisher fans don’t want to hear it, but I think it’s time we all step up and accept that this particular hero simply wasn’t meant for Hollywood. I’m sure the comics are fantastic, but the idea of a revenge-driven vigilante has already been done to death in American cinema and it’s been done without the need for silly, skull-head logos and villains with goofy names like Jigsaw. Kill Bill still has the revenge flick market cornered for at least another ten years, and that’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to seeing something which hits the mark these Punisher movies are shooting for. The notion of a proper, violence soaked revenge tale is too much at odds with Hollywood’s expectations when it comes to a standard superhero film. It’s never going to work. Punisher: War Zone will almost certainly win the award for best use of a rocket launcher (should such an award ever be given), but sadly that’s all this latest Punishment has really accomplished. It’s time Frank Castle called it quits.