Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Punisher War Zone (2009)

Director: Lexi Alexander

When I was thirteen, I read Marvel Comics regularly. The three titles I consistently collected were Spiderman, Captain America and The Punisher. I think The Punisher appealed since the comic was not about a superhero, just some dude with a lot of guns and a skull on his chest, taking revenge on his dead family (killed by mobsters) by wasting every criminal he could get his hands on. Basically it was a Joel Silver produced action movie in comic-book form. However, there’s a pretty twisted morality going on with its zero tolerance capital punishment attitude towards evil doers, which never really went into any grey areas in the issues I remember reading. There was one scene I always recall where he busts a female flight attendant for smuggling drugs and decides not to kill her. Why? In the voice-over caption, he remarks, “I couldn’t... she was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister.” How very noble of you, Mr John Wayne. Too bad about all the sons and the brothers you wasted; they had it coming because this is a man’s world, blah blah blah. For such a simple concept, film adaptations have found mixed success from the 1980s Dolph Lundgren version (which I’ve never seen) to the really lame Thomas Jane version that featured old cheese-head himself, John Travolta as a really lacklustre villain. We turn to Hollywood’s new favourite word of recent years – the “reboot” – for a quasi-sequel/remake of The Punisher franchise with Punisher War Zone.

Whilst Jane really looked like he was trying hard to be tough (and failing), producer Gale Anne Hurd has recast Frank Castle a.k.a The Punisher with Ray Stevenson, a British actor best known for the HBO series, Rome, as well as playing grizzled subordinates in things like The Book of Eli. Stevenson is a good choice because he looks like the comic book character, projecting an unbreakable hardness and stone-cold resolve. However, after awhile, there’s not much else and he becomes a bit of a blank slate afterwhile, lacking any apparent charisma. We are first introduced to him at some big mafia get together birthday dinner where he cuts the power and appears on the table with a lit flare in his hand, cast in reddish light like Freddy Krueger, then slitting an old mafia boss’s throat open with his knife and then snapping the neck of a middle aged mafia moll when she goes for her gun. "Woah," I guess we’re supposed to think, "this isn’t your grandfather’s Punisher." This is followed closely by what I consider to be the lamest action cliché ever, which is that The Punisher attaches his feet to an overhead chandelier so he can twirl around upside down firing twin sub-machine guns and massacring mafia goombahs left and right. Why do producers and directors think this is so cool? You don’t have to be a special forces expert to know it’s just plain retarded. Indeed my favourite example of this was when Ice T did it in 3000 Miles To Graceland and then was eventually shot to pieces because he was dangling upside down like a fish on a hook. But back to The Punisher being aggressively cool. Man, this guy is so tough that he uses a pencil to snap back his broken nose, which made me laugh in its attempt to solicit our admiration for this tough son-of-a-bitch. Yes, the violence is particularly grisly with CGI head-shot explosions and CGI throat-stabbings galore. My favourite moment had to be when The Punisher surprises one gangster by punching him in the face and when I say punching him in the face I mean that they built a fleshy-head-rig so that The Punisher’s fist caves in the guy's face like a black hole. So yeah, The Punisher is not a technically superhero but he has superhero abilities such as fists of fucking iron! Incredible.

The story? Oh, right, The Punisher busts up another operation where he does two things that set the plot in motion. First, he throws a pretty-boy mobster Billy The Beaut (Dominic West) into a glass compactor, which tears his face up and leaves him as The Joker. Oh wait, not The Joker: “Billy’s dead... from now on, call me Jigsaw!” Yes, the film even has a scene that apes the Tim Burton Batman where West rips bandages from his ugly new face, a patchwork of flesh that doesn’t reach the heights of Gary Oldman’s plastic-flesh-face in Hannibal. Now if you had any respect for Dominic West as an actor after playing one of the coolest characters in television history, Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, please stay away from this film because he really swings for the fences here, hamming it up like nobody’s business. Similarly if you had any respect for Doug Hutchinson as an actor after playing one of the scariest characters in television history, Eugene Tombs the liver-eating cannibal in The X Files, please also stay away from this film because he also really swings for the fences here, playing Jigsaw’s younger liver-eating psycho-brother. West and Hutchinson really compete for worst Italian accent in their villainous brother act: "Who the fuck are these fahnooks?" Back to The Punisher who during this first act set-up also accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent mistaking him for a mobster, which you might think could add some shading to this basic vigilante story, but if you’re looking for complexity than I give you the scene where the Fed’s widow (Julie Benz) pulls a gun on him and shouts, “Who punishes you?” Step aside, Alan Moore, I think comics and comic adaptations just got owned by this film's brilliant writing. Oh, The Punisher also has a tough black cop chasing him, Colin Salmon (who played the tough black commander in Resident Evil) who wants to bring the vigilante to justice and faces dismissive treatment from the NYPD who are all Punisher fanboys. This led to my favourite scene where Salmon is facing static from the department and sneers, “With all due respect, Captain... this is BULLSHIT!”

Anyway, The Punisher is having a crisis in consciousness, almost retiring his whole skull-shirt act to the disappointment of his only friend, a slimmed down Newman (Wayne Knight) playing surprise surprise a gun dealing nerd who utters another priceless bit of dialogue: “We are fighting a war against the assholes who slip through the raindrops.” Not to worry, complexity is simplified when The Punisher has to rescue the Fed widow and her kid from the evil Jigsaw, which ends in a hostage situation in an abandoned hotel where a hundred different gangbangers are conscripted to be easily killed by The Punisher. The climax, just to spoil it for you, is a lot of muzzle flashes in dark corridors and CGI squibs galore, which made me reflect on how there was no real “art” to all of this mayhem (all I could think of was the awesome corridor hammer action sequence from Oldboy). Anyway, Jigsaw forces The Punisher to choose between the death of the Fed widow and her kid or the death of his nerd friend (Newman), which really made me think hard about whether The Punisher would let a kid die to save the hacker who brought down Jurassic Park so it was really suspenseful for a second there. Let me just say that evil is punished and there’s a happy ending when the widow reveals to The Punisher that her dead husband talked a lot about The Punisher when he was alive: “He said you were one of the good guys.” Oh, it’s all okay then! Good thing he was killed by his hero!

The Making of Punisher War Zone revealed that the director Lexi Alexander was female, a former martial arts champ who helmed the Elijah Wood football hooligan film, Green Street Hooligans. I don’t know why I was surprised really. Wake up already, dude, Kathryn Bigelow won an Academy Award. I’m sorry, gender equal studies. So yeah, great job, Lexi Alexander – women can make repugnant bullshit action films too!


Phil Jeng Kane said...

Kathryn Bigelow. Gale Ann Hurd. And now Lexi Alexander. I thank these women for yinging up the violent yang of action cinema. Too bad this movie sounds about as respectable as tentacle hentai.

wilbur said...