by Mel Valentin
"Punisher: War Zone," the latest attempt by Marvel Comics to bring the Frank Castle/Punisher character, a violent vigilante, to the big screen, arrives in multiplexes with rumors of “creative differences” between the director, Lexi Alexander ("Green Street Hooligans," "Johnny Flynton," "Fool Proof"), and the film’s producers. At one point, the producers apparently took "Punisher: War Zone" away from Alexander, but she ultimately retained sole directing credit. Pre-release issues aside, "Punisher: War Zone" is gratuitously, stylishly ultra-violent. "Punisher: War Zone" is so ultra-violent that it’s surprising it didn’t receive an “NC-17” rating (it probably should have). Beyond the ultra-stylish ultra-violence, however, there’s almost nothing else to recommend "Punisher: War Zone" for non-die-hard fans (the same was true of the two earlier, ostensibly unrelated versions).Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson, stepping in for Thomas Jane), a.k.a. The Punisher, a former Special Forces officer who lost his family to the mob, is a one-man army, targeting and eliminating New York’s mob families. The NYPD make token efforts to capture Castle. Some police officers tacitly support Castle’s vigilantism. Others do so more actively, feeding him leads. After one mob boss escapes the criminal justice system, Castle decides to make a welcome call at the mob boss’s estate where, not coincidentally, the other mob bosses are present to celebrate the mob boss’ freedom. After killing several mob bosses and their henchmen, Castle follows the survivors to a wharf side warehouse, where he drops Billy Russoti (Dominic West), a mob underboss, into a bottle crusher. Castle also inadvertently shoots and kills an undercover FBI agent, but manages to escape before the FBI arrives.
"Who punishes the Punisher? Apparently, no one."
In his underground HQ, Castle broods over his error. Aboveground, he watches the agent’s funeral from a distance. One FBI agent, Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), obtains an assignment with the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force. The PTF, however, is a one-man operation, run by Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), from the precinct’s basement. Castle tries to make amends by delivering a bagful of cash to the agent’s widow, Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz), and her preteen daughter, Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas). A grotesquely scarred Russoti, rechristening himself as Jigsaw, plans on exacting revenge against Castle, but first has to retrieve a bundle of cash he entrusted to the dead agent. Jigsaw breaks his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), from a mental asylum. Along with two henchmen, Nicky Cavella (Romano Orzari) and Ink (Keram Malicki-Sánchez), Jigsaw sets up a deal with a Russian mobster to deliver biological weapons.
Story wise, Punisher: War Zone is a generic revenge flick, packed with massive firepower and gratuitous dismemberment to cover for the multiple story deficiencies. As directed by Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans, Johnny Flynton, Fool Proof) and written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, Punisher: War Zone is short on story and character and long on gore- and blood-drenched, action-heavy set pieces, including the lengthy climax set inside an abandoned hotel where Castle, videogame-style, must fight his way up through several floors packed with heavily armed thugs, a rainbow coalition of Asians, African-Americans, and skinheads, with Russians thrown in as an afterthought. But since this is the third, and most likely, the last attempt to give the Punisher a big screen presence, what exactly does the Punisher as a character have going for him?
As a character, the Punisher is the closest Marvel Comics has come to Batman in the Marvel Universe. They share similar backstories: great personal tragedy and loss (Castle’s wife and child die violently at the hands of his foes while Wayne’s parents are killed in a random hold-up). Both turn to vigilantism, Frank immediately after losing his family and Bruce years later, after training abroad. Both use violence to stop criminals, but that’s where the similarities end. By choice, Wayne refuses to kill his foes. Instead, he captures and turns them over to the criminal justice system. Also by choice, Castle operates as judge, jury, and executioner. In other words, he's a one-dimensional, revenge-fueled killer. While Wayne as Batman allows for some ambiguity, Castle as the Punisher doesn’t and, thus, makes him a lot let interesting as a character, both in the Marvel Universe and now, on film.That said, it’s hard to imagine why Marvel Comics continues to pursue a Punisher franchise. Readership of the Punisher comics (he appears in both the Marvel Universe and an alternate universe MAX series) has always been middling and even if that wasn’t the case, comic book sales aren’t enough to translate into more than modest box office numbers. And with Ray Stevenson as the monosyllabic Castle (he has less screen presence than Thomas Jane) or Dominic West chewing scenery as the grotesque Jigsaw (his attempt at a New York accent is both laugh- and cringe-inducing), there’s even less reason to see "Punisher: War Zone" theatrically or even on DVD three months from now. The Punisher should remain where he’s had his biggest success, in comic books or, to give his fans something more, in a videogame where videogame players can put his fighting and killing skills to ample use.
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originally posted: 12/05/08 19:38:14