Thursday, September 22, 2011

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Crime pays...with a fist to the face

This is still a frustrating experience to when I first seen this in a nearly vacant theater in the month of December while everyone else was watching warm holiday features. "The Punisher" from '04 took a simple approach and had its sights on pre-CGI films and flashy editing techniques, which I thought worked for what it was. I'm also a fan of gory action films like "The Machine Girl" and "Tokyo Gore Police" that came out earlier in 2008. Whatever it is that's put in front of me I'll judge it accordingly since I'm a fan of films in general. I'm all for what this movie is about, but I still can't excuse the final result. "Punisher: War Zone" took far too many liberties with what it wanted to ambitiously do and it doesn't always feel grounded as a result. Flashy, loud, crude--if it pertains to being excessive, you can count on it to deliver in that mindset, which had potential to be a thoroughly entertaining experience for not holding back and letting loose, but it doesn't always clean up the party wagon that it left behind.

Frank Castle, aka "The Punisher," takes out known criminals that continue to beat the rap sheet of the justice system. He brutally kills the head of the Cesare crime syndicate along with the raspy voiced man's family and most of his henchmen during a dinner party, which leaves Billy Russoti and later his brother Loony Bin Jim to move up the crime ladder with their former boss out of the way. Castle shows up at Billy the Beaut's hideout to finish the job but gets cut short--which makes the thug rise out of the rubble as not a phoenix but a worn catcher's mitt--when the FBI is already there doing a sting operation and he accidentally shoots an undercover agent. It throws a bolt in the machinery of his unorthodox system when the government is actually doing their job and Castle wants to call it quits. Big Brother sends a man over to look into The Punisher's practices when a share of the police look the other way.

Agent Budiansky gets partnered up in the basement on the Punisher Task Force. The actor portraying Budiansky feels so out of place with look and performance, it's as if his character motivation was to just stand there excessively tall and read lines without prep or accommodation to tailor the part to himself. It reminded me of "They Live," due to a particular big-dude-vs-big-dude fight scene, but the rest of the performance fell to the wayside. The head guy--and formerly "only" guy--in charge of the Punisher Task Force named Soap was made out to be strange and eccentric as he works by himself on something no one else takes seriously, but doesn't match with an almost positive, nice-guy, somewhat street un-wise quirkiness to the cold and gritty atmosphere. The Punisher wants to get out of the city but sticks around one last time as the FBI agent who got killed by Castle, Donatelli, has a wife and daughter that he has to protect from the two sadistic Russoti brothers. Budiansky gets in the way but realizes The Punisher is on to something after all, as the Russoti brothers keep on finding different ways to rule the city with their terror.

The dialogue here isn't too far off from what Marvel Comics typically had in their captions, apart from the profanities. Though movies are still another medium and should be translated as such to accommodate the new format because a lot of those lines look much better on paper surrounded by more picture than words for the imagination to fill in the blanks. The art direction and atmosphere comes alive as you finally get to see a three dimensional scope of the city that The Punisher does his, well, punishing. Out of all of the characters, Ray Stevenson fits the part with a crude but comely look and readable expressions on his face. Also Julie Benz does an adequate job even with what little she's given. Instead of being a wise-crackin' antihero who always knows his next move, Frank Castle is a loner who's guns speak more words than his mouth and comes with emotional turmoil that drives him on from an incident years earlier. That portion is still kept fairly simple as this is more concerned with style, physicalities and action than the narrative that trails behind. Towards the end he gets a few more lines in to which should have been left silent as they're downright cringe worthy. The one odd thing that doesn't transition too well is him running around in the open in the streets with full gear on just seemed less cinematic than when he's going from rooftop to rooftop or if he had an actual vehicle.

Other than Punisher, it seemed like the performances and line delivery were farther down on the list of priorities to nail down and it makes you wonder if anyone took it seriously on set or were just told to go for broke and stepped over when more fun got in the way of measurement. Either way, it makes the experience distracting. Performances shouldn't always be an issue with these off-kilter genre films as they're usually more about the action and here grit and violence than pulling off something dramatically poetic. But this just felt all over the place and it didn't cohesively come together in the overall experience. I mean "Dick Tracy" had the crime angle with its share of cliches and exaggerated characters but still came together as out of place as any one of them would have been apart from the film--it essentially made you forget that the outside world exists.

This film has some of the worst accents from this many characters I've heard as a whole since watching "The Sicilian." There are so many misplaced ones going on it makes you wonder if they did it on purpose, but then to "what" purpose? You get cartoonish New York mob men that sound like they grew up in all different neighborhoods, an Irish sounding Rasta and even a hokey "The Godfather" impersonation. The humor feels in such contrast to the dark and dirty settings; it's as if they built all these deplorable sets only to fool about when filming on them. The mechanics can go from flashy and stylish to an attempt at trying to be realistically savage and gritty without always connecting the transmission in between; which makes you think they just borrowed mechanics from other films instead of working up from scratch on their own. The gun fights are all over the place with consistency: sometimes dead accurate, other times you think the guys are blind when the target is right in front, even with two guns in hand or high powered weapons.

Ray Stevenson's portrayal, the violence and the art direction are about the only things to see here that worked towards smooth transitions without having to call foul. This is bloody and I don't say that lightly. There are stabbings through every other soft and hard placing on the body that you can imagine and gun shot wounds that show all of the gory bits--unfortunately in CGI at times. Some might be put off by it since there isn't always a solid reason in the moment or build up to it, then again, it translated how much rage is boiling inside our comic book friend and then sends a bloody message that what they're doing isn't to be tolerated. A slap on the wrist gets turned over to an expensive lawyer. That's probably why, for instance, Lex Luther and The Joker keep showing back up as pesky villains because other superheroes get caught up by their own moralistic rules, whereas The Punisher is a self-admitted walking contradiction who visits the church no less. This has dark, cold and dirty sets to show that greed and corruption is everywhere you turn. There is a share of panning to get a lay of the tenebrous and dank land that needs more than a couple of street sweepers, paint jobs and repaving to clean up. There are cool lighting effects that project neons of the city that give a strange contrast. Though what's so frustrating, is it's a shame that the rest frequently missed the mark.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Lexi Alexander (Fool Proof, Green Street Hooligans)
Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Julie Benz, Mark Camacho, Keram Malicki-Sanchez
Link: IMDB


  1. Aw come on! You know this movie deserves a higher rating than that. This movie was action packed and gory as hell.

  2. Haha, I know! That's what was so disappointing, man, because those are some of my favorites. I don't regret watching it despite--that punch to the face!