Saturday, August 15, 2009

PUNISHER WAR ZONE: Punishing the Guilty, Not the Viewer

Well, we've now had three attempts to bring the Punisher to the screen, and after the first two creative abortions, I held out little hope for PUNISHER: WAR ZONE upon learning it would soon be coming to a theater near me. There were early reports that Lions Gate (the studio behind it) was insisting it be a wimpy PG-13 flick. I knew nothing of the director--if I'd heard, then, that it was being made by a female German kickboxer, it would have probably drawn a lot more of my interest--and, as it turned out, the movie was savaged by critics, and pulled from theaters by the studio almost immediately after its release. Sounds like another pooch in the Punisher pound, and I paid it little mind.

But the film grew a following. The internet buzzed with its words of praise, its persistent insistence that someone had finally gotten the Punisher right. This buzz drew sometimes angry retorts from those unfortunate souls--few but loud--who inexplicably found something of merit in the meritless Thomas Jane Punisher film from 2004. They resented these mouthy upstarts' insistence that their beloved turd of a movie had been upstaged, and insisted that WAR ZONE was just a dumb gorefest.

PWZ, as it turns out, was something of a dumb gorefest.[1] It was also an absolute blast from beginning to end. Saying it's easily the best screen adaptation of the Punisher isn't really saying much--neither of the other two films even tried. It isn't sufficient to say it's the best we're ever likely to get, either, because that sounds like we're settling for something that isn't as good as it could have (or should have) been. No, it's much closer to the mark to say PWZ is a great adaptation of the Punisher.

Over the years, there have been a few different "versions" of the Punisher, and it should go without saying that, as conceptually different as they are, no movie can be a great adaptation of all of them. PWZ isn't about the original version, which was, conceptually speaking, a top-to-bottom ripoff of Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan the Executioner character (had Pendleton ever decided to sue, Marvel would have lost a bundle). PWZ primarily adapts the far more interesting and original version of the character portrayed in Garth Ennis' very long run on the title.

Like Ennis, those behind PWZ knew what they had in the Punisher; a relatively simple pulp character who rages through a comic-book world of over-the-top-of-the-top ultraviolence, dishing out justice to superhumanly inhuman scum. That's what PWZ delivers in spades, a solid, violent, entertaining exploitation actioneer (albeit one made on a budget of which most exploitation films could only dream)[2]. And that's exactly what a Punisher film should be.

Noteworthies: Ray Stevenson, a dead ringer for the comic character, is rock-solid in the part, even if it does mostly just require him to look rock-solid, and Dominic West does a first-rate turn as the villainous Jigsaw. Director Lexi Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer tried an interesting experiment with the film's color scheme, attempting to replicate the color schemes of the comics. It succeeds, and makes for an interesting effect on screen. And the ending of the film? FANTASTIC!

Unfortunately, PWZ wasn't treated very well by Lions Gate. The production had been troubled from the beginning, and many of its troubles had been very public. Reading between the lines of the contemporaneous reporting, it seems as if the studio suits were determined to wring an anemic PG-13 film out of the material, and, when this wasn't possible, set out to intentionally make it fail in order to prove their "point." What isn't in any way speculative is that the film was dumped into wide release with virtually no promotion at all, then pulled from theaters after only a few days and written off as a flop. Few were even given the chance to hear of its existence, and, of those who did, memories of the earlier Punisher films, unleavened by any knowledge that this one would be any different, no doubt kept large swathes of potential audience away in droves. It was never even given a chance, and that it was deprived of any chance in such a dramatic way strongly suggests someone really had it in for the movie.

Now that Marvel is making their own movies, perhaps they should buy back their rights. I suspect they could get them for pretty cheap. Stevenson has expressed his enthusiastic desire to continue with the character as long as he's able. I suspect Lexi Alexander could be lured back for another go 'round. I'd like to see it happen. PWZ was the third attempt at a Punisher film, but it's the only one that earned what the others got--another chance.

--j.

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[1] A "gorefest" relatively speaking, that is. For a contemporary "mainstream" film, that label would probably apply. For an action picture made these days--or, at least, one that isn't the latest RAMBO--it also seems appropriate. As a hardcore horror buff, I wouldn't personally regard it as a "gorefest" in general, but still, PWZ offers bloody deaths via various objects through the throat, one exploding head after another via gunshot, decapitations, cannibalism, a guy ground up in a glass grinder, a fellow hacked up with an axe, a man roasted on a spit over an open flame, and so on. For some reason, the filmmakers, in assembling their list of horrors to cover, missed necrophilia. Something to save for the sequel, I suppose.

[2] By upbudget Hollywood standards, though, PWZ is a very small-budgeted film. It cost less than the 2004 feature, but managed to be vastly superior.

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