At The Picture Show
'Punisher' reboot lacking in any complexity, thought
Punisher: War Zone
Director: Lexi Alexander
Screenplay: Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, based on the comic
book created by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Dash
Mihok, Wayne Knight and Julie Benz
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes
(out of four)
For every point, there must be a counterpoint. And five months after the former,
we have a prime example of the latter.
Now hold on - before I get into this, let me be clear that in no way do I think the
filmmakers behind Punisher: War Zone are trying to compete with The Dark
Knight, or even its predecessor, Batman Begins. (After all, it filmed months before
TDK was even released.)
I bring it up now only because this film invites an
all-too-perfect comparison. Both Batman and The Punisher operate outside the
law, a pair of tortured comic-book heroes channeling their rage and vengefulness
toward the criminal underworld. The pages in which these two characters exist are
different, of course - they inhabit different worlds and each have their own rules.
If only the film versions didn't invite such a pertinent comparison. The fact is the
result of Punisher: War Zone is a movie of pretty indefensible morals - at least in
the cookie-cutter way they're presented - while attempting to chart the same
morally ambiguous waters that have made Nolan's epics so refreshing. There is no
ambiguity in Lexi Alexander's Punisher offering - a reboot after Jonathan
Hensleigh's 2004 film was a critical and commercial flop.
To be fair, this film's violence is so over-the-top (effectively in some scenes, not so
effective in others) that at least we don't take its subject matter seriously. But the
reinforcement of a static - and, frankly, boring - main character's worldview gets
old quick. Every villain requires the same punishment, every victim the same
salvation. There are never any muddy waters - there's just mud and there's water.
From pieces of the film's musical score to the
hard-boiled crimescape of its corrupted city, it consistently calls to mind better
movies - better movies about a better outlaw. War Zone simply can't escape it.
Even the transformation of ruthless mobster Billy Russoti (Dominic West) into a
deformed madman directly mirrors the fate of Jack Napier in Tim Burton's 1989
Batman. There is even a parallel scene with a plastic surgeon as Billy unwraps his
new, surgically reconstructed face.
Jack became the Joker, Billy becomes Jigsaw - who will be Punisher's arch
nemesis for the next 90 minutes while our anti-hero grapples with the meaning of
. . . well, nothing really. Or at least it seems like nothing.
The right and wrong of killing the corrupt has weighed on Frank Castle (Ray
Stevenson) ever since his family was murdered and he went rogue. His pledge to
protect the unprotected hits a wall when he accidentally kills an undercover cop
who had infiltrated Russoti's crew.
So he decides to hang it up, give up the vigilante life for good . . . until five
minutes later, when Russoti's exploits pull Frank out of retirement for "one last
It is a false and meaningless conflict on the film's
part, because we know Frank will continue to be an outlaw forever and ever. This
isn't the tragedy of Frank Castle; he just comes across looking ludicrous. He isn't
"conflicted" - he's Pavlov's dog.
Stevenson replaces Thomas Jane in the title role and isn't much of an upgrade. He
brings more physical menace to the role but surprisingly little in the way of screen
presence. West - best known as McNulty from The Wire - has a bit of fun with his
Jigsaw performance, though he never seems fully comfortable on screen until the
makeup comes on. And then we get another performance from Doug Hutchison
playing a psychopath - one of his most crazy but least threatening psychopaths to
Prior to taking on the Punisher franchise, Alexander made the Oscar-nominated
short Johnny Flynton and the 2005's exemplary Green Street Hooligans. She
clearly has the talent for better things, but none of that talent can make this
Punisher's story an interesting one.
Read more by Chris Bellamy