It really shouldn't have been so hard to make a decent Punisher movie.
The Marvel Comics character, who shot to prominence in the late '80s after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns proved there was an appetite for psychotic and homicidal superheroes, is basically Death Wish's Paul Kersey on steroids and in spandex: Vietnam vet. Family randomly killed. Throw in a blender with a cool logo, lots of guns, and—yes—that all-important borderline-suicidal disposition, and you have Frank Castle, an antihero with no powers, no secret identity, and no qualms about killing. Adolescent boys ate that up—when the testosterone kicks in, who hasn't wondered what would happen if Batman ditched the animal costume and secret identity and simply started blowing shit up real good?
In an era when Seagal and Van Damme still ruled at the box office, it didn't take long for a Punisher movie to come along (consider how much longer it's taken for Watchmen!). The Roger Corman—founded New World Pictures, which at the time owned Marvel, got Dolph Lundgren to play Castle in an unjustly maligned 1989 adaptation currently languishing at the bottom of your local Wal-Mart's $3 DVD bin; the company's subsequent bankruptcy resulted in the movie going direct-to-video in the U.S. Still, Lundgren's nut-job interpretation is probably the actor's finest hour; the plot, involving a feud between the mafia and yakuza, lifts all the right moves from Yojimbo.
Punisher: War Zone
Punisher: War Zone: Directed by Lexi Alexander. Written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Wayne Knight, and Doug Hutchison. Rated R; 107 minutes.
More financially successful was Lionsgate's 2004 big-screen reboot. Despite the casting of fanboy-friendly Thomas Jane (who hung out at gun shows to prepare for the role), the movie wound up with an unfortunately campy tone, thanks to some truly awful dialogue and a scenery-chewing turn by John Travolta as a villain who constantly fidgets with his pipe for no apparent reason.
There was plenty of reason to fear that Punisher: War Zone, the latest re-imagining of the character, would be equally disastrous. Director Lexi Alexander (who failed to make Elijah Wood look tough in Green Street Hooligans), initially hugely enthusiastic about the project on her blog, scrubbed all references to the movie following a canceled appearance at Comic-Con (amidst rumors—apparently false—that she had been fired from the project). When actor Ray Stevenson was announced as the lead, fans wondered: "Who?" (Answer: That guy who plays Titus on HBO's Rome.) And then Thomas Jane announced that he had turned down an offer to reprise Castle because the script wasn't good.
Well, no offense to Mr. Jane, but the script really isn't the point. After seeing Punisher: War Zone, it's clear that if there even was a script, it went something like this:
EXT. CITY STREET. NIGHT.
The Punisher kicks some ass.
INT. OLD BUILDING. NIGHT.
The Punisher kicks more ass.
EXT. ROOFTOP. NIGHT.
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The Punisher takes names. Nahhh, just kidding. He kicks even more ass.
Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but how come it took Hollywood so long to figure that out? Punisher: War Zone is like a Seagal movie on crank, only with Friday the 13th bogeyman Jason Voorhees in the lead, provided Jason were smart enough to use guns and missiles in addition to his preferred tactic of punching holes in people's heads and sticking objects into various other parts of the human body. Early on in the film, Stevenson's Frank Castle fixes his own broken nose by jamming a pencil up his nostril—nobody else gets off quite so easily, as blood, brains, intestines, and chunks of flayed skin fly. Punisher: War Zone isn't technically a horror movie, but nobody told the effects guys that.
Set six years after Castle has become the Punisher, but only four since the NYPD has figured out who he is, this story plays like a sequel, even though the flashbacks contradict the origin story of the Thomas Jane version and the timeline doesn't sync up with the Lundgren one. But the point is we don't have to go through a tedious, origin-story setup: Castle is already the elite, murderous guy in the skull symbol from frame one. Like Spider-Man in the Raimi sequels, though, he's having a crisis of conscience and considering retirement after shooting and killing an undercover fed by mistake while raiding the hideout of mobster "Billy the Beaut" (Dominic West), which happens to contain a giant, open swirling pit of crushed glass that recycles not only bottles but villains, too. In falls Billy and out he comes again as Jigsaw, a lethal Leatherface lookalike with a grudge against Castle, a WMD plot involving Russians and Arabs, and a psychotic brother (a hilariously nutball Doug Hutchison) waiting to bust out of Arkham—I mean Kentworth—Asylum.
Let's be very clear about what kind of movie this is: the kind where Frank Castle shooting a parkour runner out of the sky in mid-air with a shoulder-launched missile is played for laughs; the kind where a dreadlocked black man with an Irish accent who's on a constant meth high is one of the least bizarre characters; and the kind where torture and graphic murder are the answers to everything. Those looking for political subtext may wish to note that the Punisher appears to use Ronald Reagan's hair-care products and is secretly advised by a nebbishy character named Lieberman (Wayne Knight), but such people would be trying way too hard. This is a slasher movie with guns—or, as I prefer to call it, awesome sauce. If you're expecting The Dark Knight, Part Two, please go away. For your own good.