Wednesday, December 24, 2008

431 - Punisher: War Zone review

In my review of “Nobel Son,” I wrote “as for [“Nobel Son’s”] morbidity, it made me wish I’d just bit the liver and seen “Punisher” instead.” Now I’m forced to eat my words: in “Punisher: War Zone,” a bad guy eats a kidney, not a liver. I suppose I’ll have to wipe the bile off my face.

I went into the film expecting something repulsive and childishly violent, and that’s what I received. I also laughed nearly as much as I did during “Role Models,” an unexpected turn of events.

Take the opening fifteen minutes, for example. Within that time, the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) has sliced off an old man’s head, snapped the neck of the geezer’s wife, impaled a goon’s skull with a chair leg, gunned down a dozen or so henchmen, and done some grisly things with a recycling machine. I laughed uproariously at this, and I’d like to think that my amusement was what generated yet more laughter from those around me.

It seems like there should be two modes for watching a film like this:

1. Amused with the gory, moronic absurdity.
2. Disgusted with the juvenile brutality, on the verge of walking out.

I chose the former, though the latter is perfectly legitimate. What I wonder is how someone could watch this with a straight face, as if this were a film that was attempting serious insight or had an aspiration to contribute anything other than gratuitous kill shots to cinema.

Consider the pic’s villain, a gangster named Billy (Dominic West). The Punisher throws him into a glass bottle-recycling machine and turns it on. Visualize a man swimming in a sea of crushed bottles and you’ll get the macabre idea. Billy’s face is turned into a patchwork of scars and horsehide, prompting him to rename himself Jigsaw and continue a life of crime. Billy must not watch a lot of horror movies, because there already is a popular movie villain with that name, but the guy who wrote the character several decades ago couldn’t have anticipated that.

There’s a story in the midst of this carnage, though exactly why who does what seems irrelevant in-between the exploding heads. The Punisher accidentally waxes an undercover FBI agent, which in turn leads him to appoint himself the protector of the man’s family. How considerate. The Punisher buys his guns from Newman from “Seinfeld” (Wayne Knight), a gun dealer who only sells to good guys. This forces us to wonder just who Newman is selling to in town that isn’t the Punisher, because everyone knows that Batman doesn’t use guns and Spider-Man doesn’t need them.

Director Lexi Alexander puts together her killing just fine and her story as if it were a big joke, which it is. Stevenson fits the role like a glove, looking the part of a huge, vicious man with moments of quiet pathos. He plays it straight, which works well as his is the film’s only role that shouldn’t be approached like a gag.

The last film in the series (not canonically connected to this one) saw the Punisher hatch a scheme to convince a gangster that his gay henchman was sleeping with his wife, a plot that involved parking tickets and fake fire hydrants. This film sees the Punisher find gangsters and shoot them, blow them up, decapitate them, and torture them should the urge arise, which it does. Exactly what the fans want, with punishment for those that aren’t.

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