43. Punisher: War Zone

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One of the few entries in the promising Marvel Knights canon, Punisher: War Zone is a lesson in adapted genre conventions. This is a zombie film, but there are no zombies. It’s a slasher movie, from the slasher’s perspective. It’s a comedy, and our odd couple is a disfigured gangster and his cannibalistic brother. Packaged with a whole narrative, so rare in this day of franchises and Parts of sequels, it’s the sleeper that never was, a cult favorite that deserved so much more.

Cinematic violence is an artform that, given case studies like The Expendables 2 and Commando, has to be handled delicately. The Expendables 2 was possibly the most gory action film of its year, but its stasis and unimaginative photography made it a snooze-fest. Commando on the other hand, under the same 80s American direction that works as the opposite to Hong Kong blood opera (standing still with a big gun, rather than jumping in the air with two pistols), makes up for its cleanness with an Arnold in full force. Sometimes very violent films aren’t disturbing but fun, like Kill Bill, and sometimes minimal violence can be sickening, like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — one of the most brutal Korean revenge flicks around.

It’s a tricky thing. But Punisher: War Zone represents the height of the art, or the science, and features some of the most entertaining ‘hits’ in recent memory.

Taken from several storylines, the plot of Punisher: War Zone is just another day in the life, not an origin story, not a loud-talking headliner that deforms the shape of a series like The Dark Knight. It is striking for its buddy-cop third act, its charming cast of characters, and its mild pathos, but this is a movie that exists moment to moment.

In our journey through comic book colors, the raw purples and yellows that light miserable corridors and alleyways, Frank Castle is a force of nature with the magic power of turning any opponent into a zombie — the fodder in this film explode and rupture like the undead in movies like Dawn of the Dead (but more like Dead Alive), and yet, they’re very much living and quipping. Applying that sort of body-softness/explosiveness to thugs and gangsters is dynamite, and the carnage only escalates from that level.

Director Lexi Alexander is no stranger to brutal violence, and so the producers made a ‘mistake’ when hiring her when the job was up for grabs, following the vacating of Jonathan Hensleigh. Usually in these situations you hire somebody who can be controlled, someone whose talent isn’t exactly defined, and so can be fit to a set, franchise vision. If you don’t know who Alexander is, click here or here, and quickly acclimate yourself to the kind of personality that effects a film like this.

She had to fight for a lot in this movie, losing one crucial battle — the release date. War Zone landed on Dec. 5, 2008, in the heat of Oscar season. So off an extraordinarily low $35 million, the comic book superhero movie did not even break even. According to Wikipedia, not even close. To that low budget, it might come as a surprise, given the confidence of the image, and of the effects, and the actors. With that kind of figure, one has to cast smart, not big. Colin Salmon, a favorite here at the Battle Beyond Planet X, makes a welcome appearance to deliver some choice lines about donuts and bullshit, and we’ve also got an array of cable television stars.

Dominic West begins a tradition here, however offset by Ray Stevenson, of TV leads playing villains — Michael C. Hall in Gamer, Jon Hamm in The Town, Bryan Cranston in Total Recall — because they’re obviously so talented, but not famous enough to lead on the poster. They get the interesting role, then, given that the hero’s character doesn’t betray his Hollywood star’s chiseled good looks.

Here, Frank Castle is as he’s always been. Of course, movie-goers may not recognize him, given prior entries. And those who imagine that the Punisher is simply Marvel’s answer to Batman will be doubly surprised. He’s a silent murder-machine, as grim as he is surprisingly human. There’s nothing about deconstruction here, nothing post-modern. This is a character who simply doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe shouldn’t — we understand why he kills, but not because of flashbacks or rote characterization as in other things. We empathize with a monster and yet are not indicted for it.

This is a world of bad men and their even worse targets. It’s modern mythology; gangster narratives made cartoon and speculative toward right-wing fantasy and vigilante wet-dreams. Yet somehow, that moment to moment easily divorces the film of any political dimension or moral paradox — its bloodletting is just too goddamn gleeful, too celebratory, to see the embrace of whatever conjured conservative outlet or radio host. Using those elements as requisite foundation, Punisher: War Zone creates a playground, exploding heads at rapid pace without ever winking at the camera or breaking a consistent, and rare, tone.

It’s also a murder-machine, a well-crafted tour of cinema violence that doesn’t live past the credits, for the most part. The story is vehicle to action, and the action is at the top of what America has to offer, for its frankness, its creativity, and quantity. While the Punisher is highly tactical, doing things like reloading and visibly thinking about kills before he executes, he’s also quick enough to hit a chair into a guy’s eyeball — fast reflexes begetting candid splatter that would’ve been centerstage in any other movie.

When it’s over, we decompress, the sights and sounds still lingering in our minds, and maybe speculations about the technical details if we’re so inclined. For myself, I don’t see this as a glorification of vigilantism, so I don’t think about that. It’s not even a glorification of violence, like the actual gangster narratives typically are. It is, in that delicate spectrum, a celebration of cinema violence, of that make-believe space where a guy can punch through someone’s face if he’s hardcore enough.

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