Saturday, August 15, 2009

PUNISHER WAR ZONE (2008)

Well, we've now had three attempts to bring Marvel Comics' 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.

5 comments:

  1. It was garbage, it was just a few decent looking action scenes and pointless fan service, on top horrible acting. It did not capture the feel of the MAX series at all, well superficially, it had a bunch of characters from the comic shoehorned in for fan service and violence, but story wise it didn't even come close to having the feel. Just having someone getting shot in the head and saying in an interview it's meant to be darkly comedic like comic, doesn't make it so. The 2004 film had trouble with that aspect too, but it did have that dry/black Garth Ennis wit every now and then, more so than PWZ.

    To say no one saw PWZ because of the last movie, is BS (you may not have liked it but it is the only Punisher movie to financially successful) people didn't see it because it was released in December and probably because bad word of mouth.

    As for the budget thing, they were fairly the same, PWZ probably had a bit more actually. PWZ used mostly TV actors and sound stages/green screen/CG blood/CG explosions etc.... Whereas the Punisher did everything practically with only about $13-$15 million to actually shoot with (they didn't even have the budget to shoot in Canada). So it's actually The Punisher that cost less to make but still made back about double its budget. While PWZ did worse than Howard the Duck with the better budget.

    Oh and the 2004 film wasn't upstaged by a long shot, it has its issues sure, what movie doesn't? I've read plenty of Punisher comics and I see it as a pretty good representation of the character. Considering it was using the Year One story, the portrayal of Castle was pretty accurate to that book.

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  2. You're entirely wrong about the finished film lacking the feel of the book, but since that's an entirely subjective matter, that must be chalked up to a lack of judgment on your part and put aside.

    What isn't subjective is the effort to bring the character and his world from the book to the page. A large portion of PWZ was drawn directly from the comics, particularly the MAX run. This wasn't just characters offered up for "fan service." Scenes, sets, lines of dialog, the experiment with the cinematography I mentioned, Ennis' black-as-pitch sense of humor--it's all there. PWZ's director, cast, and crew went out of their way to replicate the look and feel of the comic. The director, cinematographer, and star were in love with the source material, and that's obvious in every frame of the film.

    This certainly compares quite favorably to both earlier attempts at a Punisher film, neither of which showed much evidence that the filmmakers had ever even cracked a Punisher comic. The 2004 movie, for example, threw out the entirety of the Punisher's simple and to-the-point "origin" story in favor of a completely different, pointlessly elaborate, and very bad one that seems to have been written for no other reason that to pad the running time, and that removed any reason for the character to continue his crusade beyond what we see in that film. It wasn't much of a "crusade," either. The 2004 film is actually weaker than even the Dolph Lundgren vehicle in that respect. The Punisher is a blood-and-thunder, fire-and-brimstone, bring-down-hell-on-evildoers, grim reaper sort of guy. Most of the running time of the Thomas Jane picture is spent showing him doing things like moving that fire hydrant, stealing that jewelry, setting up that Travolta buddy and Travolta's wife. Very awe-inspiring. Very in keeping with what has made the Punisher a success.

    Actually, it's just very dumb. And dull. If it weren't for the killers sent to take him out, there would have been barely any action at all in the film. You can call that what you'd like--it ain't the Punisher.

    (If that film had worked, it wouldn't have mattered so much that the filmmakers had completely ignored the source material. It was dull garbage, though, usually because they choose to ignore the books.)

    The acting in PWZ is as solid as one could get in this sort of picture. The horrendous excesses of Travolta from 2004 are not replicated here. The actors are perfectly suited for their roles, without a single false note.

    As for box-office success, it's a measure that doesn't have a great deal of meaning when it comes to PWZ, because of the studio's treatment of the film. The studio spent a fortune advertising the 2004 film, and kept it in theaters for nearly 3 months, and, in that time, it only grossed its original budget domestically--didn't break even until the foreign numbers. PWZ, by contrast, was given virtually no advertising, and entirely pulled from theaters after only a few days, with only a cursory foreign release after (few countries ever even got the film). No one ever even had a chance to see it; few who don't make it a point to follow such things ever even knew it existed. IMDb reports that PWZ had a budget of $22 million, compared to $33 million for the unfortunate 2004 film.

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  3. I've read the Garth Ennis MAX run of the character since issue #1 came out back in 2004, and PWZ just didn't capture the feel of the writing from that book at all.

    Throwing in a bunch of unrelated villains who in their own right ranged from pretty interesting to very in their own right were shoehorned in to this movie so the creators could say "see it's based off the MAX comic look at all theses characters", Maginty reduced to parkouring meth head, Ink and Pittsy neutered background characters, the Bulats characters from probably Garth's best storyline reduced to pointless fan service MacGuffins.

    Yeah, Ennis' humor is black and has a lot of wit to it, this movie had no wit to it.

    As for the 2004 Punisher, read The Punisher: Year One (which Hensleigh cited as one of the main influences for the movie, among others), Frank Castle he mourns, drinks, he contemplates suicide and he investigates what the hell happened. Not to mention various other scenes from the comics were used as influence, and of course the Welcome Back, Frank story. The fire hydrant, I wasn't a fan of that either so fuck it, but as for everything else Frank Castle has gone the more cunning elaborate route before in the comics as opposed to all pray and spray all the time.

    As for the origin, I'll say this the how may have changed, but the why stayed the same.

    (Oh and here's an extra bit of trivia regarding the Punisher and Florida, Marvel Super Action #1, the Punisher goes down to Florida to kill the people responsible for the death of his family).

    "The horrendous excesses of Travolta from 2004 are not replicated here." Travolta reigned it the fuck in for The Punisher, if you want to talk about horrendous excess that is Dominic West sadly, a great actor giving such a shitty hammy performance, well that just makes me sad.

    With the advertising, for me I saw plenty of ads on TV and billboards and what have you as I did the 2004 film. And the 2004 film was released against bigger films like Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Man on Fire and still did decent at the box office, PWZ did get screwed in release date, I'll give you that, but still worse than Howard the Duck.

    IMDb is hardly the bastion of reliability, I've seen the budget for PWZ to be $35 million. And even then it's been quoted that The Punisher was only shot for around $13-$15 million, so that $22 million could just mean the shooting budget. Which means, again PWZ had more money to work with.

    As for being dull, you could say the same thing about PWZ as the whole middle section of the movie has nothing going on other than crappy accents and over acting.

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  4. "As for being dull, you could say the same thing about PWZ as the whole middle section of the movie has nothing going on other than crappy accents and over acting."

    This was a complaint made by a critic who trashed the film at the time. Like his use of it, your recycling it only succeeds in begging the question of whether you've ever even seen PWZ, which is, in reality, a compact little movie that features no long stretch at the beginning, middle, or end, in which nothing is going on. I recounted some of the mayhem stuffed into the movie in a footnote. As lengthy as that is, it is by no means comprehensive (it certainly looks excellent in comparison to the 2004 borefest).

    The Dominic West comments beg the same question. If what he does is "overacting," then anyone wearing that make-up--the real source of that complaint, I suspect--would be overacting, no matter what they did. West's performance is no Shumacher Batman villain--there isn't a single scene or line of dialogue in which he even remotely approximates that approach to the character. He can fly into a rage, but, for the most part, he's calm, controlled, and, in fact, looks almost catatonic compared to the face-contorting madman of the comics.

    The changes to the origin did, in fact, remove any reason for the Punisher continuing past what we see. The killing of his family was random. It could have been anyone who just happened to be in that place at that time. That's why the crusade against all scum. In 2004, there was nothing random about it--he pretty much brought what happened on himself, then took out those who did it. End of the Punisher. The last scene, where he's mouthing pretentious platitudes about continuing, didn't make any sense at all in the context of what we'd just seen.

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  5. Everyone seems always think that it was the randomness caused Castle to become a vigilante, when it actually had more to do with the failure of the justice system. Had the police done their job and brought to justice the men responsible there would be no Punisher.

    He knew who got his family in the comics, he eventually got them and that didn't stop him. Why does he keep going on? Maybe because he saw the inadequacy of the law, and doesn't anyone else to suffer what he went through.

    Whatever were going to have to agree to disagree on what constitutes shitty over acting, but I will say this. Will Patton was a better villain than anyone in either movie.

    I'll leave you with this quote from Frank Tieri who wrote the Punisher: Noir series.

    "The story of Frank Castle, to me, can essentially be boiled down to one phrase: it’s a story about loss and a man’s response to that loss."

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