What do we expect from our comic book movies, and how have those expectations changed over the course of the past 3 years? Two important questions that one must ponder before we can talk about the most recent comic book adaptation, Punisher: War Zone. You will generally find that people fall into two categories when it comes to these expectations: some are of the belief that comic books should be fun and silly, sticking with the nature of the source medium. Others, mostly thanks to recent films such as The Dark Knight, believe that comic book movies can be more — they can be very earnest films, possibly great drama that just so happens to include characters drawn from comic books. For the record, I can go either way, though I can most often be counted among the latter.
What makes this division important is that in this regard, Punisher: War Zone could make for an incredibly polarizing movie. On one side, it is gratuitously violent and over the top in so many ways, which many fans may come to love, leaving them very fond of its silliness. On the other hand, there are plenty of folks who will view it as a laughable affair, a film that takes a serious character and plops him into a world of goofiness. Put simply, this is the sort of film that you’re going to love or you are going to hate.
But let’s back track a bit and get down to some specifics about this round in The Punisher’s cinematic life. Ray Stevenson, the films bright and shining star, was oft criticized by yours truly for not having the right look, not sounding like a goof in promo footage, and the like. The truth is that I have a man-crush on Thomas Jane, the Punisher of 2004, and that man-crush was blinding me to the fact that Stevenson makes for a great Punisher. He finds a way to capture the depth of the character, an emotionally wounded and vengeful guy whose every waking moment is spent fighting the memories of the day his family died. Also, when it comes time to shoot the place up — which it often does — Stevenson has the physicality to bring the Punisher to life in a big way. Simply, the man is a killing machine, unlike anything that we’ve seen before in this character’s short-lived cinematic run.
The only problem is that while Stevenson plays the role straight, so many things are going awry around him. For one, the film’s story and dialogue are what you might expect from a straight-to-DVD Steven Seagal affair. Sure, they brought Frank Castle back to New York, but did Hollywood’s B-movie accents have to come with it? At first, I was wondering if Dominic West was trying to play Billy “The Beaut” Russoti, the mobster who eventually becomes the mangled crime boss Jigsaw, or if he thought he was the big bad in some ridiculous gangster parody. Chief among these goofball offenses is a ridiculous sequence in which Jigsaw and his cannibalistic brother Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) go recruiting. From the outlandish high stepping to a Pattonesque speech in front of an American flag, this sequence was just a little too much. Then of course, there is this gang of meth-addicted acrobats who pop in and out of the movie. Their existence was a mystery only until one of them meets their end in a creative, albeit extremely cheesy way.
And maybe that is the point that I was missing as I laughed at and furrowed my brow toward this film for 107 minutes. Maybe it is all just supposed to be silly, stupid and fun. Because sure, it is gratuitously violent — the sort of violent that you find in the depths of the horror genre. We are talking axe-wielding psychos and grandmas with half-a-head here. And if you are into that sort of thing, there is plenty to go around. Unfortunately I’m not, and to me it all felt as if director Lexi Alexander and the creative team behind this film were going overboard with the violence in order to distract us from the fact that it had a story akin to something we might see in a Cinemax original movie. But again, the violence — plentiful.
My hope is that there are some of you out there who will be jumping to see this, despite the fact that I found it to be a trifling affair. Because contrary to what some of you are expecting, this film isn’t a train wreck at all. In fact, if you look at it the right way it could be a rockin’ good time. The hurdle that I couldn’t get over is that while it is violent and silly, it was too silly when it didn’t need to be, too goofy where I might have expected it to take a serious turn. And it was this silliness that made the entire experience feel off-balance.
In the end you really have to go back to that great divide. Because if you go into this movie expecting a dark, serious and gritty Punisher movie, the kind that the 2004 film hinted at but ultimately failed to deliver, you will leave disappointed. Of that, I can assure you. But if you go in looking for some silly fun, over the top violence and a man who might have been meant to play the Punisher all along, you’re in for a treat. Because Punisher: War Zone, for all its faults, does live up to the second half of its name.