Review: Punisher Warzone, 2008, dir. Lexi Alexander

As a fan of slasher movies, I occasionally wrestle with a moral dilemma that I find to be central to the psycho-killer-makes-teens-more-dead dynamic (and I’m sure– at least I hope– that I’m not the only one). The slasher, serving as the real star attraction of the movies that they feature in, becomes the figure that we end up rooting for, providing us with the creative and highly brutal depictions of kids being introduced to their deaths that we seek in trashy horror romps. Generally, the doomed teens are so unlikable that we’re almost in the killer’s corner on a pretty base level; he’s doing the world a favor by lessening the population of obnoxious kids. Fair enough.

But eventually our ethics remind us that Killing Is Bad, and we start to feel pretty terrible that we’ve been cheering, for eighty minutes, for our rampaging masked lunatic as he wreaks havoc using gardening implements, power tools, his bare hands, and so on. (The court recognizes that women, too, can be slashers.) We want them to get their just comeuppance. As much as we watch slashers to see people dispatched in imaginative ways, maybe most of all we watch them to see what our heroes will come up with as a means of ending the killer’s murdering spree this time— because obviously, whatever they did last time, it didn’t damn well work. It’s a conundrum; we want the killer to win, but we also want the kids to win. How do you solve this seemingly impossible conflict?

It turns out that the answer is pretty simple: Swap out “faceless irritating teens” for “faceless scumbag criminals”, and make the slasher into a guy named Frank Castle. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?

Of course, someone did, and twice: Back in 2004, Thomas Jane starred in Jonathan Hensleigh’s movie interpretation of Marvel’s infamous anti-hero, the Punisher, and in 1989, Mark Goldblatt directed Dolph Lundgren in the same role. None of the films relate to one another on the basis of continuity, which is good since the latter two fall between being tepid and outright horrible, and it’d be a shame if Lexi Alexander’s rendition of the character was forced to be lumped in with lesser versions. Alexander here has really embraced the figure of Frank Castle and made the iconic Punisher mythos her own by essentially making her film into a less morally disquieting version of a slasher– Frank’s offing some really bad people instead of some stupid kids, after all. It’s a lot harder to feel guilty about that.

The essential back story of the character is…well, it’s minimal. The 2004 film spent a lot of time setting up Castle’s vengeful war on crime by starting it of as a war on John Travolta. Alexander doesn’t waste a second getting right into it, though; she starts her film off with no fewer than twenty five killings and one disfigurement via glass crusher, and she only pauses to allow Frank’s origins seep into the film for brief moments. We learn that his one-man war on criminal activity was spurred when his family died in a mob hit. It’s sparse but full enough; like most slashers, it’s what he does that’s interesting and not where he came from.

So what does Castle do? He ushers criminals of all sorts into the next life using a variety of armaments– though he’s not afraid to improvise, as seen in the use of chair legs, fences, and the aforementioned glass crusher. The latter device kicks off the primary conflict that plays out over the rest of the film; rather than killing the poor sap who falls into it, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), it disfigures him and leads him to take the moniker “Jigsaw” and go on his own violent rampage while recruiting a personal army of thugs to kill the Punisher once and for all. (Hint: It’s not enough gun.) There are some interesting character beats in between the surging carnage, but we’re not really here for those; they’re the gravy that makes the meat of the picture taste that much better. No, this is a movie that revels in violence and bloodshed. It almost feels exploitative, and if the movie’s budget didn’t betray its origins that label might fit nicely. Make no mistake: Punisher War Zone doesn’t care about teaching you any moral lessons or celebrating the power of the human spirit, but it does care about what happens when bullets and shells are introduced to the human body. Ever wondered what would happen if you mixed parkour with an RPG launcher? Punisher War Zone is the movie for you.

If an hour and a half of people being blown apart isn’t your thing, then you’ve probably already made the decision to avoid this film, but as with most art there’s more to it than what the surface shows. War Zone doesn’t concern itself with anything close to substantive social critique and it certainly won’t be looked at for its subtextual value but in a time where superheroes generally are treated as clean-cut and virtuous, Ray Stevenson’s Punisher yields a sharp 180 in the outlook of the masked vigilante out to battle crime and protect the innocent. Sure, Castle cares about keeping good people safe, but that’s about all he has in common with distant cousins like Spider-Man; Castle doesn’t care about law or honor, he cares about getting the job done by any means necessary. His apparent amorality cuts a stark contrast to the struggle most superheroes go through to fight the evils of their worlds without sinking to their level– on the contrary, Castle finds himself right at home in fighting fire with fire and then some. He has no time for petty morality.

Stevenson makes a compelling and highly watchable Punisher here, much more than his predecessors and particularly Jane, an actor I love but whose look didn’t fit the part. (Which is to say nothing of his attitude.) Stevenson, large, imposing, and impossible to read, brings much-needed physicality to the role and really sells Castle as an invincible killing machine. There’s never any point where you might doubt that one man is capable of clearing out entire buildings packed with armed criminals intent on killing him; he plays Castle so straight that the over-the-top pops and works that much better and feels that much more enthralling. Also earning his keep here is West, one of the best actors out there today, as the deranged Jigsaw. Working from underneath layers of make-up (he’s so named because his entire face is sewn back together after Castle punishes him) and crafting the most appropriately hilarious and ludicrously stereotypical Noo Yawk accent he can muster, West is likely having an even better time here than Stevenson. Remember: B-grade movies aren’t just for B-grade actors. By bringing enough ham to the role to outshine your local butcher shop, West proves it.

Make no mistake: You’re not going to learn anything from Punisher War Zone, about yourself or about anything else. But you probably already knew that. You will, however, be entertained by what essentially amounts to an hour and a half of bad guys being killed off, and you shouldn’t need to read anything more than that to know whether or not this is your kind of movie.

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