Monday 10 August 2009

The Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Monday 10 August 2009
In many ways Marvel's answer to DC's Batman, The Punisher also concerns someone who becomes a vigilante after his family are slaughtered by criminals, although there's an obvious discrepancy in finances available to working class cop Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) and affluent playboy Bruce Wayne. Plus, Frank's less theatrical when it comes to meting out violent justice; his body-armour sans any cape n' cowl...

Hollywood's third attempt to adapt this property to the big screen, this latest try feels indebted to the thematically-similar Batman and its recent reboot, although it's just a dumber and more sadistic interpretation made by idiots. War Zone's golden-black aesthetic and thumping soundtrack riffs on Batman Begins, while its own demented villain "Jigsaw" (Dominic West) is created after being dropped inside a bottle crusher (instead of toxic chemicals) after a factory shootout. If that weren’t enough, director Lexi Alexander (Green Street) proceeds to restage Tim Burton's unveiling of The Joker from behind head bandages.

Never upset a Sontaron.

The Punisher: War Zone is a typical, bloody slice of comic-book ultra-violence, cribbing liberally from much better films. The cast are an eyebrow-raising mix of the following types: pigeon-holed C-list actors (The X Files' Doug Hutchison played a liver-eating mutant, so now he's playing a kidney-eating henchman; Dexter's Julie Benz plays a mom married to a vigilante, so now she's playing a mom caught up in a vigilante's grudge match), talented B-list actors lowering their standards (The Wire's Dominic West, Rome's Ray Stevenson -- fire your agents), or actors seemingly drawn to this skuzzy shit like horseflies (Paul W.S Anderson alumnus Colin Salmon.)

Spotting its influences and pondering how they assembled a half-decent cast is half the fun of War Zone, as the film itself is hollower than a gun barrel. Essentially, one-man army Frank Castle is busily wiping out the scum of New York with the furtive help of sympathizing cops, when he accidentally kills undercover FBI Agent Donatelli (Romano Orzari) during his offensive against mobster Billy Russoti (West). As Castle wrestles with feelings of guilt (who punishes the punisher?), he finds himself targeted by Donatelli's vengeful partner Budiansky (Salmon), the surviving Russoti (who, having encountering a glass-crusher, renames himself "Jigsaw" because his face now resembles a patchwork quilt), and the scornful eye of Donatelli's grieving widow Angela (Benz, who appears to choose film roles depending on whether or not they include an adversary called Jigsaw – see: Saw V.)

The most interesting thing about War Zone is that its German director is that rarest of things in Hollywood action cinema: a woman. You'd never tell from the amount of CGI-assisted bloodshed on display – not that I necessarily expect a woman to automatically bring a clichéd "female perspective" to bare -- but it does make me wonder why Punisher's female characters are razor-thin and the resulting mother/daughter scenes so unconvincing. There's one scene where Angela holds Castle at gunpoint on her porch, ushering her daughter inside the house to safety, only for her kid to interrupt their conversation moments later with a "where's my red pen?" inquiry. I'm sorry, but if my mother was pointing a gun at a strange man outside my front door, I'd likely be cowering under the bed while dialing the police, not peeved about a lack of stationery for my colouring books.

On a primitive splatter level, The Punisher: War Zone delivers what its target audience will be expecting, but very little else, and certainly nothing to linger after hilariously trite denouement. There's a high body-count, lashings of visceral gore, digital blood squirts, and heads and limbs are blown/hacked off. If you're in the mood for a gutter-level Batman wannabe (where Wayne Knight plays this Dark Knight's Alfred, I guess) and don't mind the preposterousness of someone clawing a man's kidney out with his bare hands, or clichés like the anti-hero seeking spiritual guidance in a church before unleashing hell, then this is right up your alley.

For me, there was the aforementioned fun in dissecting the film's awfulness and its peculiar pedigree while you watched, and West occasionally elevated things when he just embraced the hamminess of the role, but this is ultimately a derivative, ugly, shambolic, hackneyed mess.

directed by: Lexi Alexander written by: Nick Santora, Matt Holloway & Arthur Marcum starring: Ray Stevenson (Frank Castle/The Punisher), Dominic West (Billy Russoti/Jigsaw), Doug Hutchison (James Russoti/Loony Bin Jim), Dash Mihok (Det. Martin Soap), Colin Salmon (Agent Paul Budiansky), Wayne Knight (Linus Lieberman/Microchip), T.J Storm (Maginty), Romano Orzari (Nicky Donatelli), Julie Benz (Angela Donatelli), Stephanie Janusauskas (Grace Donatelli), Keram Malicki-Sanchez (Ink), Mark Camacho (Pittsy), David Vadim (Cristu Bulat) & David Vadim (Carlos Cruz) / Lions Gate Entertainment/Columbia Pictures / 103 mins. / $35 million (budget) /