Late To The Party: Punisher War Zone
There be spoilers ahead, mehearties.
You’d think the Punisher would be an easy character to get right on the big or small screen. It’s a derivative Marvel Comics pastiche on 70’s revenge flicks like Deathwish — Charles Bronson with a skull on his chest if you will — and faces none of the creative challenges of, say, making Spider-Man’s costume work on the big screen, or tying in six main characters into an Avengers film; superhero films often have some quite difficult creative challenges in translating the four colour language of the page into the visual language of film.
But much like The Hulk, Frank Castle’s celluloid journey has been a rocky one. Now, I really enjoyed Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher, even if Lundgren plays Frank Castle as if he were the Cookie Monster out it’s face on benzos doing a Sylvester Stallone impression (and I was always sad that the execbots nixed the original idea of Lundgren spray painting the skull on his bullet proof vest at the climax of the movie). But then, I always did have a softspot for Cannon films back in the eighties, and this film is stupendously violent (if not overly gory), with Lundgren ripping about the sewers on his ludicrously unstealthy motorbike in between the odd bit of yakuza and mafia annihilation.
Even amongst the Expendables fraternity I think Lundgren may be the worst actor of the lot, elevating the likes of Van Damme and Stallone to enthralling thespians who have exquisitely honed their craft. It’s hard to put my finger on just what it is that is so terrible about his acting, that elusive x-factor of shittiness, but I can’t do it: everything is terrible, from the fruity Scandinavian twang of his gravel voice, through to his consistent inability to hit his marks or time his dialogue right with other actors. But he’s apparently a fucking great dude in real life and not a diva in the slightest, and I will say this: if I saw Dolph Lundgren lumbering down the street towards me in a bullet proof vest with a skull spray painted on his chest, standing about ten feet tall with a jaw that looks like it was toughened up by him beating his face with a club from when he was two, and that twisted distorted permasnarl that implies that putting on his favourite aftershave involved him dousing himself with pepper spray right in the kisser every morning, I would not be pondering why his voice sounds like he has dubbed himself slightly off. No sir, I would be absolutely, utterly, shitting my pants. Which is why he made a great Frank Castle.
I certainly preferred Dolph Lundgren’s effort to the Lionsgate movie from 2004, and whilst Thomas Jane made a Punisher fan film recently which is suitably grimy (if incompetently plotted), the 2004 effort is best forgotten. To be honest, I have forgotten it; I’m sitting here trying to remember why I thought the movie was garbage, but other than vaguely thinking that Travolta was miscast, half remembering a terrible attempt at recreating the Russian subplot from Ennis’s Punisher run in the comicbooks, and wondering why Frank Castle had seemingly bought his own merchandise from a comicbook shop (i.e. the T-shirt), it’s a bit of a black hole really. Not what you want from a movie about an ex-special forces lunatic conducting assymmetric warfare on home soil against criminals who have no idea what they’re up against.
I think there are really three ways to play The Punisher. 1) play it as a straight up hard-boiled war/slasher flick, about a damaged special forces soldier who comes back to ‘normalcy’ after seeing hell on earth on the field (perhaps even relishing it), only to find that normalcy shattered when his family are killed, and he therefore goes to ground viewing the urban crime through the lens of the warfare he came back from. So, he’s not a hero, but a guy that is really fucked in the head, a special forces trained serial killer motivated by a skewed puritanical need for absolution in a world that seems to have no morality. Movies that I would cite that follow a similar trajectory would be First Blood, Dead Man’s Shoes, and maybe something with the vibe of NARC. None of the Punisher movies to date have really gone this route, although an example from the comicbooks would be Garth Ennis, who would oscillate between this and his usual ‘bleak humour’ approach in the Punisher MAX, series (I think especially of his ‘In The Beginning’ arc).
2) Play it for shits and giggles. Let’s face it: Frank Castle is a pretty two dimensional character, and his story does lend itself to trashy B-movieness. This is pretty much the approach taken by Punisher War Zone, and it’s a film that really hams it up, especially with the villain Jigsaw (played by Dominic West) dancing around and chewing up the scenery. The movie falls flat and sags when it tries to shoehorn in Frank Castle’s guilt over killing an FBI agent, and it’s way too clumsy to really explore that (and let’s be honest, exploring the inner psyche of Frank Castle just destroys the character stone dead and makes him uninteresting — if you’re going to do this, do it the way Ennis did, and have him as less of a human being and more of a living thanatos with no conscience and no self awareness, but rather nihilism incarnate — as soon as you humanise him you turn him into some loser with a skull t-shirt he bought from his comicbook shop). Once it gets back to Castle putting chair legs through peoples’ eyes, or punching people in the face so hard that their head explodes, then the film crackles. The Punisher War Zone is definitely a step in the right direction.
3) Play it straight. By straight, I mean play it that Castle is the hero taking on all those bad drug dealers and sorting them out because liberal wishy-washy society spends too much time understanding and not enough time punishing. You can couple this with a fetishisation of the weaponry (I remember a comicbook that came out in the early ’90s whose sole purpose was to basically list all the guns and weapons that Castle had. Really.) This would be a Deathwish/Harry Brown approach, and I am very glad that there hasn’t been a full on right wing cinematic portrayal of the character. (I would be lying if I said that all the movies do not have elements that you might identify as right wing, but I personally thought that Nolan’s recent Bat trilogy had a more substantial right wing subtext, intentional or otherwise.)
The Punisher War Zone opts for option two, and it is truly, gloriously, ludicrous. Seemingly taking a page from the Del Toro school of set-lighting, the Director Lexi Alexander also cheerfully shoots levels of gore more akin to what you might see in a horror flick. The script is cliché riddled and cringing: at one point Castle is being held at gunpoint by the widow of the FBI agent he has shot, and he is in the process of encouraging her to shoot him, when the widow’s daughter pops out from the house and says something like ‘Mom, I need my red pencil to complete my homework, can you get it for me’, and the mother then puts the gun away: tense situation resolved (wtf?!?!). At the end of the film, one of the government agents sees the error of his ways and practically high fives Castle while admits that, you know, maybe Castle is right in doing what he does anyway. If this were played with anything like subtlety or nuance, it would be exactly the wrong thing to do with the character. As it stands, it is so dumb that you have to believe that everyone involved knew how fucking stupid it was.
The Punisher War Zone is not a film that leaves your worldview shaken, or spiritually enriches you. Rather, it is one of those movies that will leave you feeling slightly soiled with the trashiness of it all, and the nagging feeling that you have just indulged in something morally bankrupt and a little bit wrong. But if you ever wanted to see Frank Castle take out a free-runner with a surface-to-air missile launcher, then I’m sure you’ll be able to get over any moral quibbles and ignore the idiocy of the plot for a viewing experience that epitomises that poor excuse for a movie: the ‘guilty pleasure’.