See, here’s the thing about the Punisher movies: they just don’t quite satisfy. The films go down that indulgent path that movies like Taken and Man on Fire navigate to satiate the dark, furious part of people’s souls that require a solution in the face of violent injustice. No? Just us? Uh-huh, right. Of course, those movies get the extra boost of urgency, while the Punisher movies are mostly about destroying bad people that have nothing to do with the original horror from which our anti-hero was created. So, that being said, what the Punisher movies really only offer is a chance to stomp around sadistically in the criminal world, cutting the cancer out of human society with impunity. There’s no redemption or finality. Frank Castle’s quest will never end and his heroic motivation died long ago. He is now just the Punisher, former father and husband turned killing machine.
In spite of the Punisher’s limited dimensionality, however, he is effing good at what he does. In that regard, the Punisher is a fantastic character. So, given that a significant portion of the public has an appetite for angry, vengeful movies, one might think the Punisher would translate successfully into film. But, not so much. Marvel’s foray into Movieland with the character has now failed three times.
The problem is that while Taken and Man on Fire have a clearly defined overarching objective to save a specific innocent (or innocents) from harm, there’s no one in particular or at least no one special that needs saving in a Punisher story. Without that desperate journey, the Punisher storylines devolve into hunting expeditions interspersed with heady action and gore. Tremendously exhilarating, yes, but hollow at the end.
Having said that, we firmly believe that there is a place for The Punisher in live action … not in the movies, but in an episodic format. In this scenario, stories could be built that reach through several serialized moments stretching the drama and allowing characters to be developed more fully. One of the best parts of the Punisher comic books (which follow this format) is that Frank builds a cat-and-mouse game as he closes in on his prey. The longer (albeit not too long) the culmination, the more satisfying. And, in this format, it would be easier to introduce sympathetic characters that could add complexity and life to the character. Ideally, we think the Punisher could fit nicely into one-hour episodes on Showtime or a similar production house. We’ve heard rumor of this sort of project bouncing around, but thus far there’s been no official notice.
The Punisher is clearly a popular character. Since his introduction in Amazing Spider-man #129 (and yes, we own a copy and we only paid $5 for it back in the early 1990s (but it does have a one inch rip on the front cover, dammit)), Frank Castle has given the Marvel Universe a dark realism that much of the superhero dross can’t create. There have been several series, one-shots, graphic novels, cross-overs, etc. culminating in hundreds of appearances. Incidentally, The Punisher will celebrate 40 years in print next year. We hope he’ll kill a few hundred bad guys to mark the event.
But we’re not here to talk about what should be done for future projects nor to discuss the comic books. So, here’s a brief review of Punisher: War Zone.
As we stated, the Punisher has had three chances at movie success. The first film was released in 1989 starring Dolph Lundgren (yeah, we’re confused too) as the titular character. The back story is essentially the same as the comic book version except that Frank Castle is a cop in this one. The story is pretty thin. The Punisher (2004) has a better set of bad guys and is just better done overall. Punisher War Zone portrays a grittier anti-hero and we like him better overall but the characters in the rest of the movie are actually pretty boring.
The Good: Violence is what we’d expect (the first scene with the flare and the knife through the skull is awesome!) and violence is what we get. Lots of it. The darkness is interrupted by small amounts of dry humor which gives the movie a MAX comic book series feel of the story. There were several complaints about Irish-English actor Ray Stevenson playing the role of the New York vigilante with Italian heritage and special ops roots. But movies almost always stray away from printed characters and we were pleased with Ray’s look and performance.
The Bad: We like Julie Benz but didn’t care for her character, Angela. Plus, stupid story elements like an immediate the attachment of Angela’s daughter to Frank is absurd (hey little why are you giving the big angry man in black that your Mom was screaming at earlier a big snuggly hug?!) because it’s a sloppy mechanism to humanize his character. He’s the damn Punisher for crying out loud! He doesn’t need to be soft! Also, remember what we said about serialization? At 103 minutes, the movie was too short to really build up the evil of the antagonists so we couldn’t really grow to hate Jigsaw, his brother, and the host of criminals offered throughout the movie.
The Ugly: Jigsaw’s face. Yes, Jigsaw is a core member of the Punisher pantheon (see Amazing Spider-man #162), but we can’t stand him or his idiot brother. Jigsaw (Dominic West) and Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) are too over the top as characters that they come off as much more annoying than scary.
We really want to give this movie a higher rating, but the relatively boring storyline puts it at a lower mark. Still, that hasn’t stopped us from watching it three times. And repeat viewings are rare things for us.
2.5 star out of 5