Friday, December 19, 2008

Film Review--Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone
directed by Lexi Alexander
written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchinson, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz, Stephanie Janusauskas,

For what it’s worth, this utter bloodbath that includes a maddening array of killings does possess a sweet natured core that nearly elevates the film beyond the merely sensationalistic.

As established in Marvel Comics, Frank Castle lost his wife five years ago when he took them on a picnic and they got caught in the middle of a mafia assassination. Frank survived and went underground declaring vengeance on mafia types and he began to systemically eliminate all the top families. In this film, however, he branches out and begins to slaughter all the scum of the earth which naturally is a grand and lovely thing to see. His range expands and he becomes a true vigilante fighting against all crime and protecting the citizens where the police fail to do so.

In this film Frank inadvertently murders an undercover agent named Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari) while going after notorious gangster Billy Rusotti (West). He eventually pushes Rusotti into a glass compactor but Russotti doesn’t die; his face is merely horrifically disfigured prompting him to take a new name for himself: The Jigsaw. Frank suffers pangs of guilt and decides to pay a visit to Rusotti’s wife Angela (Benz) and his daughter Grace (Janusauskas) but the reject his offer of a gift for Grace. Eventually they come around when they are kidnaped by Rusotti and his crazed brother James AKA Loony Bin Jim (Hutchinson).

So, this film is really all about watching punks, jerks, assholes, piss-ants, and maggots die mostly be gunfire. It’s about rooting for a man who has killed hundreds of people in cold blood and wanting him to kill hundreds more. It’s about looking at the criminals and anticipating eagerly their sad, miserable demise and not worrying about their families or their upbringings or anything else that might have led them down this road. No, they are merely ciphers whose sole purpose in this film is to get in the way of one or three of the Punisher’s bullets and flop about on the ground for a few moments and expire. This is killing for the vicarious thrill it gives the audience who internally hoot and holler with every addition to the ever-growing pile of bodies. It isn’t about the story necessarily but there is a story here about trying to make an effort to heal a wound which will never heal that you are directly responsible for. There is a sensitivity to Frank Castle and it comes out when he looks at Grace and he imagines his own dead daughter. In a touching scene after Frank has rushed Angela and Grace to his lair for protection Grace sees a chest and Frank opens it for her. It contains numerous keepsakes that once belonged to his daughter. He pulls out a globe that plays a lovely melody and is lit from inside. It’s a moment of sheer elegance and it shows a side of Frank otherwise hidden by years of regret and suffering for something he feels as a cop he should have been prepared for but wasn’t.

The shooting scenes are fairly rudimentary and lack even a substance of style. They are simply a series of jolts that cause grievous bodily harm to a ridiculous number of people who really are presented as deserving to die. There are a few shots of faces being blown off, an image of a poor, helpless old lady with her head completely bashed in. It’s one of those moments where you ask yourself, “Did they really have to go there?” especially considering how she is positively comatose and only her eyes are bugged out at the tv screen which is ostensibly showing one of her cooking shows.

Although this is a highly enjoyable film for what it is, it doesn’t transcend to a level much beyond the typical action film. The killing is deadening and after a while the viewer simply becomes immune to what ever impact it may have had at first. It’s a strange sensation to watch countless men die on screen and to yawn because it no longer affects you. The film is clearly targeted at young men most of whom most likely live on a diet of extremely violent games and films. They play all day long slaughtering legions of demons, dragons, thugs, fairies, and liberals. Then they watch a Van Damme film, drink a bunch of eggs, sword fight with their Uncle Titty, march in formation, read “Might is Right”, wear chain mail, scream at trees, worship the Goddess of War in every tradition no matter how arcane, and otherwise behave like total savages who enjoy nothing more than a fine cup of tea and biscuits when they finally venture back into the house. These are the ideal fans of this film and they are going to love it except for the woos parts when the Punisher is acting all introspective and practically crying over his predicament.

Death is here rather comical after a point. So many are brought down that eventually their sad slide into oblivion can only garner laughs because by that point the film has become positively absurd. I don’t know what the record is for deaths in a film but this one is got to be fairly high on the list. There is a story here but it only seems to get in the way of the relentless slaughter. Still, it’s always rather affecting to see a little girl who has been scarred for life and who will never be the same. It certainly tugs at your heart strings a little but then again it’s all too sentimental and it ultimately grates on a person. I mean, the kid is cute and pouts quite effectively but she is not able by her self to turn this narrative into anything substantial. She is quite adorable, though, and kids who suffer immensely are always good to throw into the mix if you want to soften the bullies in the audience up a bit. Seriously, children in danger are a perfect component in any film that wants to manipulate their audience into actually exhibiting real feelings other than glee over watching this or that bloodbath. Only the thoroughly disturbed–someone who got that way due to mental illness or wretched family experiences or falling on their head several times as a child–could possible desire to see anything untoward happen to such a delightful little girl.

Ray Stevenson shows a slight range of emotion here as his character seems to contemplate his life and its ruins on occasion. The Punisher becomes chagrined and slightly disturbed when he shoots Mr. Donatelli once he realizes who he is. He’s sympathetic to Angela and Grace and it’s clear by reading his face that he legitimately feels tremendous compassion for them. Otherwise he just grits his teeth and creates a sensational amount of mayhem by killing every worthless thing that gets in his way. This character allows the viewer to live out the fantasy of ridding the world of all its garbage and returning the streets to the calm, placid condition that they once were. Everyone wants to reduce crime but nobody will admit to themselves that they truly want to do so in as dramatic a fashion as the Punisher. Nobody wants to get their hands dirty. The Punisher offers a vicarious thrill and we live through him and seek out those idiots and degenerates who pollute our good communities with their nefarious activities. We all want them gone and we allow the Punisher to do that which we are ultimately too sensible or scared to do.

Overall, this film doesn’t do anything to charm the senses nor is it particularly novel. It’s an exercise in force and aggression and for the duration of the ride it’s rather thrilling. It depends on where one comes down on excessive violence. In this case the violence serves no real purpose other than to raise adrenaline levels and embolden the spirits of its audience who will unfortunately lose their edge a few short minutes after the film ends. Still, throughout the experience of living through the Punisher it is fairly exhilarating to witness so many deaths that the film clearly promotes as being necessary. There is something mystical about so much death occurring in one specific place and time. It concentrates a tremendous amount of energy and such a location would be rife with magical significance. Many, many deaths are actualized in this film and the plot doesn’t obstruct the obvious intent of the film. The scant narrative is secondary to all the killing and the film manages to do what it sets out to do. It’s fake brutality that the sane and mentally sound will be able to properly dismiss immediately upon absorbing it. It’s eye candy for those who enjoy death as a media-sanctioned sensory sport.

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