Sunday, December 07, 2008

Funny with a Vengeance

Man, I haven’t enjoyed myself this much since Crank and Rambo. If you’re not laughing your ass off while watching large parts of the new film Punisher: War Zone, you’re seeing a different movie than I did. It was completely gory and outrageous and awesome. While not technically a good movie, it wants you to have fun, so in that way, it’s totally successful.

British actor Ray Stevenson is absolutely perfect in the title role. Nailed it. He’s given some scenes in which he gets to act, and if you saw him in the HBO-TV series Rome, you know he can deliver the goods. He understands that Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, is a broken man whose only option in an insane world is to punish the corrupt. He gets the movie and plays the character like a shark--never stopping, barely saying a word, and completely without mercy. In a more serious film, he would be terrifying, but the folks he’s going after here are all really terrible people who escaped the law. So go ahead and cheer him on as he slaughters them in really inventive but efficient ways.

Stevenson looks exactly like the character from the MAX series (the mature line of Marvel comics)--specifically, as drawn for “In the Beginning,” the first arc of writer Garth Ennis’ run on Punisher MAX. Don’t get me wrong: I love that series of comics by Ennis for completely different reasons than I love the movie, but both are great in their own ways.

Ennis’ series is a complex and gritty crime-fiction work, owing much to Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and other greats of this genre. The Slavers, in particular, was a genuinely brilliant piece of hard crime fiction. You won’t think Lee Child’s former military policeman, Jack Reacher, is a tough guy after reading Ennis’ 60-issue run.

On the other hand, this movie is a cartoon. It takes the violence of the comics and transforms it into a drinking game of a movie. You want to see what they’ll do next, and nothing is sacred. Director Lexi Alexander conceives of the Punisher as akin to Jason Vorhees (from the Friday the 13th films), only he’s going after criminals instead of teenagers. Man, there’s a pack of meth-head killers that employ the French martial art parkour, and I groaned as I imagined that there would be a long drawn-out fight with the tough but slower Frank struggling against the much faster acrobats. Not so. The first guy gets taken out by a rocket mid-flip. It. Was. Glorious.

Dominic West was brilliant on The Wire, playing the tortured and complex homicide cop Jimmy McNulty. In Punisher, he portrays a seriously disfigured mob chieftain known as Jigsaw. West gets the joke here, and he takes his talent and amps it up to 11, devouring all the scenery he can. His accent is not anything recognizable, but at the same time, its completely stereotypical Italian gangster. Somewhere between Brooklyn and New Jersey. Think Scarface mixed with Jack Nicholson’s Joker. In fact, there’s a scene in Punisher that made me think of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Right after he sees his new face, West’s character watches the Statue of Liberty on television being put together like a jigsaw in a computer simulation, and he gets this possessed look on his face like he’s about to say, “Yes, Father, I will become a jigsaw puzzle.” Comic-book readers will know it when they see it. West is great in this picture.

Mixing in a dash of the more comedic Marvel Knights series, also by Ennis, director Alexander brings the character of Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) into the mix. He’s running the Punisher Task Force. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which his new partner, sent to him from the FBI, goes down to a basement and finds Soap surrounded by shelves of files. He asks his new boss which shelf contains the murder files, and Soap looks at him, surprised, and then spreads his arms, saying, “Well ... all of them.” Detective Soap wants to catch the Punisher, but at the same time he has really bad luck and winds up willingly giving tips to the one-man army played by Stevenson. Soap wants to catch an obvious killer; but he also sympathizes with Frank Castle, who suffered the loss that came from his family being killed, after they witnessed a mob hit while picnicking in Central Park. Soap’s last line in the movie brilliantly serves as the punch-line of the joke Alexander is telling: “Now I got brains all over me.”

Punisher: War Zone is getting murdered at the box office this weekend, and it will likely be a flop unless word-of-mouth is phenomenal. But that’s the kind of movie it needs to be. People will go running to their friends, telling them excitedly about this great movie they just saw. Like a well-kept secret, it will be passed along person to person. And it will kill on DVD, when it’s finally released.

Such a fun flick. I can’t wait to see it again.

READ MORE:Exclusive Q&A: Punisher’s Stevenson,” by Fred Topel (; “Top 5 Punisher MAX Moments,” by Dylan Brucie (


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I love the Punisher but have not liked any of the movies - let's hope this one is better.

MysterLynch said...

Lexi has said she will not be doing another film, but that she thinks Stevenson should direct a sequel.

David Cranmer said...

I'm glad you liked the movie. I'm a fan and have a ton of old Punisher comics but the films have been a mixed bag up to this point.

Anonymous said...

I really want to see this movie, but everyone I've mentioned it to has looked at me like I'm crazy. It had horrible reviews and a terrible score, but it looks like it would be great fun. Thanks for your more in-depth, thoughtful review.