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.


CmdLuke said...

Interesting to hear. I actually liked the Tom Jane film, but I'm not a huge fan of the punisher comics and can definitely see how it doesn't live up to the character on page. Just out of curiosity, what did you rate the Tom Jane film?

Your Racist Friend said...

Maybe a 5 or so. Needlessly complicated and changed his origin, he wasn't very motivated, they spent too much time with the boring villains, etc.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Good luck with the finals...

CmdLuke said...

ok, I can see that.

Did the fact that it was a movie about the Punisher influenced the lower score? what would you have given it if it was just a regular crime action/drama and not a movie based on a comic book character?

Dr. Worm said...

I wonder if all these films exist as a sort of way to safely enact our dark fantasies. We realize that in a civilized society that we need to be careful, and circumspect, and merciful, even to those whom we're pretty sure are scum. So we invent these vigilante characters as a way to mutilate all the "bad guys" without staining our own conscience.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Do "we realize that in a civilized society that we need to be careful" etc?
Go to Israel after a suicide bombing and you will see the call for vigilante acts is very much there. The sad reality is that most people think these things are perfectly OK.