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    « Back to the Future UK Re-Release | Main | Movie Prop & Costume Auction: "Resident Evil", "Killers", "Inglorious Basterds" »

    Marveling At The Past - Punisher: War Zone (2008)

    "Did you know that kidneys and apple sauce are a delicacy in Sweden?"

    I'll start by telling you a little story about 'Punisher: War Zone'. I am a Punisher fan. I've been desperately hoping that a sequel or reboot to the 2004 film would happen and Frank Castle would be given the proper cinematic treatment he deserved. With the origin story out of the way, it was time to give us a real high-octane Punisher film set in New York with maximum violence and a really cool villain. It appeared that 'Punisher: War Zone' was going to be that film. The problem was it flopped so badly in the States that it appeared it wouldn't be getting a theatrical release in the UK.

    So I watched it online. Yes, I confess. Take me away. Faced with the prospect of waiting another four to six months for a DVD release, I downloaded the film. Even worse, I didn't like it at all. Then I found out that the film was getting a UK theatrical release. To atone for my sins I decided, even though I had already seen the film and knew it to be bad, to pay to see it on the big screen. As it turned out, my local theatre was playing it for one week at midnight showings only. I decided I would rather say a few Hail Mary's at home than share a theatre with the type of people who would go and see 'Punisher: War Zone in the early hours of the morning..........oh, and buy the DVD as well. I believe my soul has been cleansed. Or at least it will be once this article is finished and I can rid myself of this terrible movie once and for all.

    Though it makes me sound as though I am impossible to please, 'Punisher: War Zone' joined what is becoming a pantheon of films which failed to capture the true essence of the character. The film certainly does an admirable job of showcasing the most glorious and implausible violence seen outside of a Paul Verhoven movie. The world of 'Punisher: War Zone' is one where fists can turn heads into craters, the wives of mob bosses get the same treatment as the criminals and nobody escapes with 'just a flesh wound'. The film is set exclusively in New York and features a villain ripped from the pages of the comic book. It should work.

    But it also has the most unbelievably banal plot which strips the film of any momentum, its villains of anything interesting to do, and betrays the very spirit of the Punisher himself.

    During an operation which virtually destroys an entire crime syndicate and sends Billy 'the beaut' Russoti head first into a glass crusher which turns him into Jigsaw, the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. With millions of dollars unaccounted for, Jigsaw sets his sights on the agent's wife and daughter to retrieve it as well as recruiting an army made up from the rest of the city's criminal element to take down the Punisher. Meanwhile, Frank Castle himself is determined to protect the deceased agent's family and then retire from his career of vigilantism because he feels........guilty.

    The Punisher I know does not feel guilt. The point of the character is that he has become completely dehumanised from a lifetime of violence and retribution. He has gone too far down that path to recognise either himself or differing subtleties in the criminals he hunts. They are simply targets to be lined up against a wall and shot. Sure, he occasionally recognises that there are good people out there but if one of them got killed, even by his own hand, his only reaction would be to kill more people. The idea that the Punisher would throw in the towel after accidentally killing one agent of the law is not only banal, it is ridiculous. If the Punisher had been this far into his criminal killing career, you can be sure there would be plenty of bodies from the right side of the law left in his wake. The Punisher does not stop because of this. He does not compromise.

    I don't know whether it was the studio or the filmmakers who felt the need to remove Frank Castle's edge as though a mainstream audience would not be able to connect with him otherwise. Whoever made the decision misses the point of the character. You do not connect with the Punisher. He is an lonely soul who shuts you out of his world. This is not helped by the fact that Ray Stevenson, though not through lack of trying, is completely miscast as the title character. The great thing about Thomas Jane's approach to the role was that you could see the death of Frank Castle on his face after the death of his family. You have no doubt that this is a man that cannot return to a normal life someday. He has lost his humanity. Stevenson portrays Castle as a man who is simply doing what he feels the need to do to protect the people rather than satisfy his own anger and bloodlust, and with the hope that maybe he can hang up his guns someday.

    The actor is not helped by a script which requires him to almost openly sob as he realises the mistake he has made in taking an innocent life. We as an audience realise that the hard edged, uncompromising Punisher film we were hoping for has gone down the toilet. Just to rub salt in the wound, they throw in scenes of him visiting a widower and watching her child draw pictures.

    Surely though we can rely on the film's villains to give it a shot in the arm. Can we rely on Warner Bros. to stop converting their blockbusters into 3D? Can we be assured that 'The Hobbit' will get made. Of course not. Jigsaw is portrayed as a figure of fun, ashamed of his horribly disfigured face and as a poorly concealed clone of Jack Nicholson's Joker. Just to hammer it home, we get the scene where he proclaims that "Billy is dead, from now on call me Jigsaw". And just because this film is so stupid I believe that the character is only referred to by that name once or twice more and is addressed as either 'Russoti', 'Billy' or 'brother' for the rest of it. Speaking of which, I cannot understand why Jigsaw's brother 'Loony Bin Jim' gets more screen time, personality and memorable moments that the main man himself.

    At the end of the film, the Punisher spits out the line "let me put you out my misery" to Jigsaw before killing him. At that point I realised that the hero and villain have had practically no scenes together up to this point. There is no antagonism between the two characters. There is no exciting face off that the film has been building up to. This is just one of a list of mistakes 'Punisher: War Zone' makes as a basic action film.

    Mainly, the problem stems from the fact that most of the film's scenes are completely recycled from a hundred other films of the same ilk. We get the obligatory scene where the villain has a business meeting with a fellow mobster which ends with the latter getting graphically killed. We have the plot thread of a vigilante on the loose with one lone bungling cop on the trail of bring him down. We have said cop being given a straight man for a partner. We have the hero confiding to a priest at church. We have the villains invading the damsel's home. We have the damsel and child being brought to the hero's lair for protection only for them to be left defenceless while said hero runs an errand. Our villains easily find the hero's laid and kidnap the wife and child and leave nothing but a mess and a sacrificial lamb sidekick to cough, splutter and die at the exact moment hero arrives to find out what happened. If you combine all of this with the film's bizarre lighting scheme of casting everything in neon blue, yellow and pink (making it look as if it were shot from inside Joel Schumacher's underwear) and you have an shockingly boring and painful experience on your hands.

    The 'warzone' in the title is not particularly accurate either, referring only to a tenement block where all of New York's gangs are recruited to ambush the Punisher at the climax of the film. If you wanted to tell a story that was true to the character and to that title then it should not have been any harder than the following; the Punisher slaughters the most powerful mafia family in the city shattering the balance of power within New York's criminal fraternity. As a result of the Punisher's actions, every smaller criminal outfit take to the streets in a 'winner takes all' fight for control creating a war zone where nobody is safe and millions of innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Rather than a well structured plan that allows him to take on the criminals he hunts one at a time, Frank Castle must face the overwhelming odds of all of them at once in order to put an end to the chaos that he has this time created. At the end of the film, the gangs are eliminated save for one which takes the mantle of power. Crime still exists. The Punisher still has a cause. The circle of life continues.

    It doesn't matter of course. Even though Marvel Studios have taken back the rights to the character, it does not have enough in its favour to risk another attempt at a Punisher film. R rated comic book movies seldom make any money. It has had three times (including the Dolph Lundgren version) at bat and failed. Perhaps the character is better suited to short films. And, sadly, perhaps that breed of avenging bad ass vigilante cinematic action hero is an archetype which we left behind us in the 1980's, never to be let back into mainstream acceptance. At least Frank Castle doesn't come back then I don't have to write any more of these.

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