Let’s All Go See ‘Punisher: War Zone’! No? Fine. (TQP0135)
I have two birthday traditions. 1) I do not work on my birthday. I am neither a surgeon nor a farmer, so I’m pretty sure they don’t need me. With my day off, 2) I go to the movies.
Now, this year I was spoilt for choice, right? I could’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman aim for another Oscar nod in like three different movies. Or I could’ve seen Keanu Reeves finally, FINALLY play a stonefaced alien. Or…hey, who doesn’t love Jason Statham? So I decided to split the difference.
There are a few moments in Punisher: War Zone that hint at the kind of movie it probably wanted to be. I would say “Spoilers!” but judging from the box office totals during its opening weekend…you people didn’t have any plans to see it, did you?
Of course not. It’s a Punisher movie. Whose most marketable star is Newman from “Seinfeld.”
But anyway. In the first 15 minutes, Frank Castle (The Punisher), sitting in a car, becomes mildly annoyed that his nose has been broken, and so grabs a pencil off the dashboard, shoves it up his nostril, and >CRACKS< it back into place. Then returns to his stakeout, expressionless.
Around the same time, a series of insanely annoying Parkour-style bad guys are introduced as the setup for a joke to come later: when The Punisher blows one up - as he’s mid-flip – with a rocket launcher.
There are a few more moments of black comedy like this. But ultimately, this third Punisher reboot fails for the exact same reasons the last one failed: The filmmakers don’t understand what’s so funny about Frank Castle.
They recognize there’s something funny, because they all got copies of Garth Ennis’s tongue-in-cheek run from the early part of the decade. If you have no knowledge of the Irish writer, his most famous work is Vertigo’s Preacher, where he created a character aptly named Arseface.
Garth Ennis’s brand of humor is not subtle, is what I’m saying.
Ennis’s early run on The Punisher was silly, surrounding the merciless, humorless vigilante Frank Castle at every turn with bizarre, embarrassing, and grotesque side characters.
Morbidly obese Mr. Bumpo. Joan the agorophobe. Heavily-pierced optimist Spacker Dave. The 2004 Tom Jane version actually incorporated these characters (in attempts to re-humanize Castle), while completely missing the point that they’re NOT characters – they’re cartoons designed to contrast against The Punisher so he looks scarier.
Punisher: War Zone seems to be vaguely aware that humanizing Bumpo, Joan and Dave was a wrong move, so they instead go totally cartoonish with their choice of villains. So we get Jigsaw, one of the comic’s few long-surviving villains.
Ever see the Jack Nicholson Batman? Jigsaw’s got the exact same origin: vain gangster’s face is mutilated, he goes nuts, swears revenge while rebuilding his criminal organization. Except Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson and that movie had a budget, whereas here we get Dominic (McNulty!) West’s painful attempt at a goomba accent underneath shoddy Leatherface makeup.
But apparently he wasn’t quite insane enough, so this movie adds his even crazier brother, subtly named Loony-Bin Jim, prone to bad puns (“Let me AXE you a question”) and worse acting.
Since Ray Stephenson’s terse Frank Castle isn’t the electrifying presence of, say, Robert Downey, Jr., waaaay too much screentime is devoted to these two. Once again missing the joke: these two are only funny if they interact with Castle, so we can see just how little he reacts to two vengeful psychopaths.
But by the time they do interact, the two are just going through the motions until Castle can kill ‘em. It’s like the movie keeps bringing the lead in right after the prime joke period is over, and so The Punisher is left to just do the standard action-movie stuff when, if he’d only shown up a scene earlier, we might have gotten a pretty interesting movie.
(Other problems: they actually throw in some half-assed Catholic imagery; Colin Salmon’s “I’m here to avenge my partner” character seems wholly on loan from another movie; and considering The Punisher’s characteristic devotion to reconnaissance to avoid screw-ups, I found it pretty hard to buy the idea that he wouldn’t know about the FBI agent.)
(Okay, one more thing: I actually do love it when kids and other small mammals aren’t afraid of the big, imposing dark avenger – the little boy in Batman Begins, the little girl here, even the cat who licks Wolverine’s claws in X-Men 2. I’m not immune to this particular cinematic trope.)
Anyway, on the off-chance that yet ANOTHER Punisher movie gets made, I have a simple recommendation: voiceover. Since the late 80′s, most Punisher comics have a running commentary in the form of the character’s “war journal,” which is often bleakly funny, as it reveals his two central tenets: 1) He hates criminals, which is why he kills them, and 2) he really does find a small bit of joy in killing them.
And honestly, what’s the point of casting two large men with gravelly voices if you’re not going to have them say meanly funny things in a low decibel?
To prove my point, I offer this panel from an early Ennis issue (drawn by Steve Dillon). Frank Castle is on an island full of depraved mercenaries, and observes that he now has the opportunity to kill, well, all of them: