Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Punisher: War Zone

As most of you would have noticed, I've been on leave this fall due to school. Finals aren't until Tuesday, but I couldn't resist coming back early after WLC's review of Wanted, and her issues with the film. She brought up a lot of good points about violence in certain films that, much to my chagrin, are aptly illustrated in the latest failed attempt to bring Marvel Comics' dark vigilante The Punisher to the screen, in Punisher:War Zone.
A brief primer, for the uninitiated: The Punisher, aka Frank Castle first popped up in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man as a foil to Spider-Man. Castle was a former Marine whose family had been killed in the crossfire of a mob hit in Central Park, leaving Castle the only survivor. Completely shattered by the experience, he became The Punisher and declared a (very literal) war on crime, executing pimps, drug dealers, etc. Astute students of pop culture will note a resemblance to a certain Mack Bolan, Executioner. The character enjoyed massive popularity in the 1980s before burning out thanks to excessive exposure and market saturation. After several aborted attempts to revive the character, the Irish writer Garth Ennis successfully brought the Punisher back to the forefront with stories heavy with violent black humor and new depths of characterization that redefined the laconic Frank Castle. This popularity continued through Ennis' dark "mature readers only" take on the character that had little to nothing in common with the mainstream Marvel universe, in which the aging Punisher had been racking up the kills for dozens of years, and was undoubtedly the most dangerous man in his universe.
Sounds simple, right? A tortured man that had lost any chance at a normal life, who fought to end the worst evils mankind had to offer? This has been used successfully elsewhere (*cough, Jack Bauer, cough*), so how did they screw it up so badly? The story is as follows: The Punisher (Rome's Ray Stevenson) conducts a raid on a mafioso's mansion at the beginning of the film, and accidentally kills a deep cover FBI agent while cleaning up loose ends. Stricken with guilt, he decides to quit his vigilantism. Meanwhile, mafia hitman Billy Russotti (The Wire's Dominic West) survives being tossed into a glass-crushing machine by the Punisher and begins calling himself Jigsaw, and moves to take over organized crime in the city, and kill the Punisher. Throw in the dead FBI agent's partner out for revenge, the dead agent's wife (BTVS/Angel's Julie Benz, in one of the worst performances of the year) and child in Jigsaw, and wackiness ensues, as the man said.
There were a lot of different people that worked on the script for this one, and as a direct result, there are a lot of things wrong with it. First and foremost, the tone of the film isn't quite "there". It seems to be based on the early Ennis Punisher tales, and is a lot more humorous. But....what works on a comic page doesn't necessarily work on the silver screen. The filmmakers would have been better off making the film more serious. Also, there's quite a bit of terrible or cliched dialogue.....if it's 2008 or later, and you're writing a script in which an FBI agent refers to a room full of cops as "Krispy-Kreme scarfing m***********s", you might want to step back and reconsider. The Punisher's crisis of faith took far too little to trigger in such a fanatic character, and wreaks havoc with the believeability of the film.....the Punisher will likely stop hunting down criminals as soon as Amy Winehouse stops smoking crack, and this sticks out. If you need a driven character to harbor serious doubts, at least give them a deep-seated and personal reason to do so (like Batman is given with the death of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight). The violence in the film feels very fake and "video game", and that's a problem on several levels. One, it looks silly, CGI blood everywhere. What's wrong with practical effects, squibs and such? Two, there is little to distinguish the Punisher's behavior and motivations from the criminals, except that he only goes after "bad guys". This is another greviously damaging aspect of the movie. Had we been shown definitive proof that the Punisher was absolutely necessary, it would be easier to root for him. Not that it's all that difficult, but this could be one of the reasons the film didn't/isn't resonating with non-fans. Probably the worst crime of the movie is that while the character is portrayed more or less accurately, the film version of Jigsaw is a carbon copy of the Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 Batman film, right down to a scene where a doctor explains that there was nothing left of his face and he had very little to work with. This kind of hackery can't even be passed off as homage, and has no place in a professionally crafted script.
Now.....for the good. I have quite possibly never seen a bad film with so many good performances, especially from Ray Stevenson. Stevenson is easily the best screen version of the Punisher, and does a lot with such a dialogue-sparse character. He excels at dry humor (as demonstrated in a scene with the second best on-screen use of a pencil this year), and handles some rough dialogue and questionable scenes with great skill. It's too bad that this material give him the opportunity to show us even more. Dash Mihok shines as the pathetic Detective Soap, police stooge for the Punisher, drawing most of the intended laughs in the film. The film has a great, grainy look with lots of harsh neons and a New York City that looks truly filthy and pre-Giuliani. Think of the look as "Dick Tracy Goes to Hell", and Punisher cover mainstay Tim Bradstreet would certainly be proud. And for all the unevenness that precedes it, it has a truly killer final scene.
While this is a vast improvement over the previous Punisher films, it's still not that great. I will see it again, and probably watch it on video, but all the while thinking of what could have been. I give Punisher: War Zone 9 out of 22 on the 22 scale, and the score is ONLY that high because I'm a big fan of the source material.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Initial Reaction: "Bleh...I feel used..."

...Used in the sense that Wanted took advantage of my enjoyment of action films. I didn't experience an action-packed, edge-of-my seat thrill ride with cool new sequences and moves. I felt I had been marketed a cheap copy of films that have actually been successful in this genre. It's one of many, and frankly I'm getting sick of it. Allow me to elaborate.

When the film opens, James McAvoy is Wesley Gibson, an account manager for company X. He's living in a crappy apartment with a girlfriend who's sleeping with his best friend, and he suffers from anxiety attacks for which he takes medication. He can't stand his life, and feels completely numb to everything around him. But something exciting is in store for Mr. Gibson. (Literally...it happens in a store.)

Enter Ms. Jolie as Fox (ha, ha) to tell Wesley that his father was one of a league of assassins, one of the greatest that ever lived. He had just been killed by a rogue assassin who--in the same scene--shows up and begins trading gunfire as Fox tries to protect Wesley. She brings him to meet their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman) who explains that Wesley's fate is to become one of them and to kill his father's murderer. Appropriately, the wimpy Wesley is freaked out beyond belief and runs away. But as I'm sure you can guess, he finds his way back to the group after going back to his normal life and realizing he can't go through with it anymore.

This was one of the first problems I had with Wanted. Gibson goes from being a sad, boring account manager to a giddy killer. Literally in hours. With the first glimpse of the assassin gang and the traumatizing circumstance of shooting and being shot at, he's terrified and disbelieving. Probably a good response. Then the next morning, he suddenly finds some strength to tell the people around him to f*ck off, and now becoming a killer is an enticing, satisfying option. Oh, I can see that...the last time I was in a shoot-out and captured by an assassin gang, my next day at work was extremely dissatisfying.


Next is the "Becoming an Assassin 101" part of the film. He's beaten, cut up, interrogated, and through these experiences learns valuable lessons such as fighting atop a moving train, catching a spindle, and the oh-so-cool "curving a bullet." This part is decent enough, but aside from the interesting bullet thing, just an excuse for some more violence.

And of course, our dear sweet Wesley becomes sufficiently bad-ass. He's given his first assignments and starts to live the life of a true assassin. The best part of the film in my opinion is where the plot decides to go in the second half of the film. We see a little more realness in the struggle of killing people he doesn't even know, and there's a decent plot hitch that made me more interested in the ending. The ending itself was headed in a good direction, I think, but ended up shooting itself in the foot.

Lastly, my least favorite part of the film: the moral of the story. Or rather, the anti-moral. **slight spoiler** It offers a rallying cry to its viewers to do something with their lives. But, wait...wasn't this about assassins? Are you telling me to improve my quality of life by committing murder? REALLY?? And I thought I was living a good life by NOT participating in such things. Guess I was misled. I don't care if this was only meant as a joke, because then it's even worse; it makes the lead character and practically the entire film just that: a joke.

Violence has become sort of pornographic, taking center stage as filmmakers think of creative ways to dispose of people and spatter blood across the screen. This is a trend that is turning me off to action films. I'm not so "prudish" that I can't stand any killing or fighting, I think that physical conflict and force is something that occurs naturally in the world and, while I don't necessarily condone it, can appreciate the art of fighting and the apparent justice of "killing the bad guy." But to derive pleasure from torturing and killing people is a truly disturbing place, and I think that as time goes by we get closer and closer to that end.

Rating: -6

With adequate acting, action-packed (though somewhat recycled) fighting sequences and an intriguing plot, Wanted has a lot going for it. I can see how many people liked it. But everything else drags it way down. I didn't buy Gibson's character or motivations, and the gratuitous violence and pathetic message were terrible. Not just any action-packed bloodbath will do anymore, people. In my book, this junk is just plain NOT wanted.