11 December 2008

Punisher: War Zone

STARRING Ryan Stevenson, Dominic West, Wayne Knight, Doug Hutchinson, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon
WRITTEN BY Nick Santora & Art Marcum
DIRECTED BY Lexi Alexander
Lionsgate, 103 mins., 2008

** (out of ****)

As a fan of the 2004 Thomas Jane Punisher, the replacement of Jane with Stevenson (HBO's Rome) did not stand kindly for me. When Jane dropped out, my interest in the 'sequel' leseened to a pretty high degree. Filming started on War Zone, occassional pics appeared on the net (of which I was unimpressed), and a short minute-and-a-half trailer debuted which didn't get me in the mood to see this in the least. It appeared to be nothing more then a shoot-'em-up movie with heavy metal/rock music blazing as heads explode, and that doesn't really interest me.

And to little fanfare or publicity, Punisher: War Zone was released into theaters this past weekend to a hugely dismal box office ($4.3 million). Plus, reviews weren't all that positive. What I got from those was that it was a mindless shoot-'em-up movie (as I feared) with horrible dialogue; but they all seemed to agree that Stevenson was pretty intimidating as The Punisher. With abit of free-time on my hand, I decided to go to a matinee screening of the flick, and was pleasently surprised that it was actually pretty good. It's a completely different animal from the Thomas Jane film, but it works as both a sequel and a 're-imagining.'

For six years, The Punisher (imagine Rambo with a skull for a shirt) has been roaming the streets of New York, punishing the wicked in the attempt to make the city a safer place. He has strategically been exterminating mob families, and he has one left to eliminate. Now the Punisher sets his sights on Billy Russoti. When raiding Russoti's hideout, the Punisher unknowingly shoots a undercover FBI agent, and in an encounter with Russoti, leaves his face disfigured. Over-run by guilt, Castle (the Punisher) debates hanging up the coat, so to speak, as the Punisher. However, Russoti, who has now anointed himself as Top Mob Dude and took up the name of "Jigsaw", looks to kill not only Castle, but the family of the undercover FBI agent. Castle takes it upon himself to protect the family and end Jigsaw's reign of terror, but it's made all the more complicated with Jigsaw enlists the help of pretty much every nearby gang imaginable.

I was prepared for the worst - anticipating a crap-tacular movie of epic proportions. Granted, this wasn't as good (in my opinion) as the 2004 rendition, but it was better than what I expected.
For me, Thomas Jane will always be the Punisher. However, I confess that Ray Stevenson stepped into the vigilante’s shoes very, very well. This version is much more aggressive. Although, Castle does have moments of questioning if what he's doing is right. Stevenson acts more like a immovable object, a brute, Hulk-like force that moves in a straight line and shoots his enemies down using various methods. Stevenson doesn't have much of a personality when he's not firing a gun, and the writer's seem to acknowledge that because he's not given much to say, nor any real dramatic moments. Replace "Hulk Smash!" with "Punisher Smash!", and you got Ray Stevenson.

Dominc West seems like he's auditoning for the lead of Godfather 4 the entire running time. I understand he's a mob boss, but enough's enough, give the audience a new version of a mob guy. Perhaps make him a well-educated slacker in jeans and a T-shirt? I like that idea. But West excels when he's in the Jigsaw persona, perfectly capturing a crazy, albeit disgusted with himself, individual. The same can't be said for his character's brother, Jim, played by Doug Hutchison, who delivers his line's like a mentally ill patient (which actually might be in character, since his character is locked away in an asylum). Point is, Doug was the most annoying actor in the entire movie, and I couldn't wait until he got his just rewards.

It was a great surprise to see Wayne Knight (of TV's 3rd Rock from the Sun fame) in a movie, since it's been a while I've seen him in anything. Knight has few scenes, but he makes them count. A real sense of friendship is created between Castle and Knight's character Micro, who supplies Castle with the big-time guns. Julie Benz (TV's Dexter, this year's Rambo) doesn't fair nearly as well, as she's given hardly anything to work with. Her direction is limited to: "look sad", "look devastated", "cry", "be afraid! Be very afraid!", and "run, bitch, run!" Sorry Benz, but at least you're getting jobs, so that's a good thing.
What Punisher: War Zone will most likely be known for is its violence. And there is tons. Seriously, it's even bloodier and more elaborate than Jigsaw's work in the Saw movies (and no, the two Jigsaws are not related). At one point, Frank actually punches a dude in the face so hard that the guy's skull caves in and a pile of blood is all that's left. That's how insane it is - but perhaps the sick part is is that I enjoyed every damn minute of it. Another friggin' hilarious death sequence is when a quite acrobatic bloke is jumping around, but a rocket-launcher shot from a one Mr. Castle hits the guy mid-flight and blows him to bits. It's so insane and cartoonish that not only am I in love with that death, but it also drives me to a burst of laughter. From the moment the Punisher shows up, the Bad Guys are going to die in some of the most bizarre yet awesomest ways imaginable. Though, sometimes, I can't help but think, 'Poor dudes, they probably just took the job because they needed the money, and now they're dead because of it. That sucks.' And the film's climax, where the Punisher faces off against a lot of gangs with guns, is stellar. In summary, War Zone is extremely violent (though, the title does warn yah), but it's friggin' awesome!

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how I feared this would just be a shoot-'em-up flick with heavy metal/rock music blazing. Well, we got the gun battles, and we also got the really horrible rock music. Mr. Rob Zombie (director of 2007's Halloween) apparently contributed a new song for the film which is played during the end credits. But indeed, when guns are firin', rock is hollerin', and it's just about as irritating and harsh on the ears I anticipated. If there was any particular fault I hate most about this movie, it would be that they chose such shitty music.

The script is actually pretty good. Obviously, not top contender for Best Adapted Screenplay, but it was better than I would have given it credit for. Every once and a while, a character gives out a atrocious line of dialogue (e.g., Frank says the infamous 'Don't die on me!', but luckily, Stevenson's able to pull it off with minimal cringe), nor are any of the characters particularly well developed. They each have their one scene where the actors get to explore their characters, but then it's back to clich├ęd and expositional dialogue. I can deal. A small complaint I would like to bring up would be that although the title perfectly sets up what the movie is going to be about, the script doesn't so much. I want dialogue from police commissioners and Castle and even Billy talking about this showdown going on, and the preparations for it, etc., etc. Make it a bit like Glory, with the anticipation and gravity. When writers are able to bring the gravity of the situation, the entire movie gains this giant weight that helps the story plenty. What I do appreciate is that the writers reiterated that Castle is the way he is because of the death of his family, and he stills mourns for them - six years later. Good sense of continuity and staying with the character.

Overall, War Zone is worth a matinee showing. When it arrives on DVD, I'll probably be one of the people waiting for the previously viewed copy of the DVD at the Movie Gallery or Blockbuster. It's a good movie, and a great way to spend 103 minutes. If you can get past corny dialogue and the fact this movie exists mainly to see heads and bodies getting blown the crap up, then you'll enjoy this flick immensely.

1 comment:

thebonebreaker said...

Great Review Andrew!

It's funny that you mentioned Rambo, as that was the 1st big action movie of the year and this one is seemingly the last - I think that they complement each other well - a good way to start and end the year, for fans of 'shoot 'em up' action!

You also pegged the rocket-launcher scene - I laughed out loud at that - it was just too funny!