The Reboot worked for 2008's The Incredible Hulk which floated somewhere between sequel and re-imagining. On the other side of the spectrum is Marvel's 2008 flop Punisher: War Zone. Although production on this film started as a Sequel to 2004's The Punisher, creative differences an altered cast and crew and a merry-go-round of scripts led to this Reboot, which has no shared continuity with its predecessor.
But is this film closer to the comic books it's based on? The easiest answer is to say that it is, considering the straight-off-the-page villain of Jigsaw and the inclusion of other comic notables like Microchip and Detective Marty Soap. However, it seems clear that the makers of this film had little concept of what comic books truly are and packed as much silliness and the, well, comic into this film while maintaining a level of blood and gore that almost rivals that other "Jigsaw" series Saw! While "The Punisher" has long been one of Marvel's most serious, gritty and stern characters, it seems that virtually no one involved in this film took it at all seriously.
The first half of the film serves, primarily, as an origin story for the villain Billy "The Beut" Russoti (Dominic West, who has never been worse) and his "evolution" (and I use the term loosely) into Jigsaw. This is wise, seeing as how we are shown that Frank Castle (now played by Ray Stevenson) has been active as The Punisher for either four or five years (the script can't seem to make up its mind). The problem with this origin story is that it's ripped off almost verbatim from The Joker's origin story from 1989's Batman! From the raid on a factory to the hero dropping the villain into a huge processing vat (this time of broken glass instead of chemicals) to the plastic surgeon scene it feels more like a spoof of Batman than an original setup. I picture writers Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (all of whom could and should have done a lot better) watching Batman and taking notes and saying "let's do it like this, but make it more violent!" You think I'm joking about the Joker thing? West even paraphrase's one of Jack's famed lines from that film, saying "Billy is Dead! From now on, you call me Jigsaw!" He then puts on a Joker-esque fedora and poses, ridiculously. After that he even dresses a lot like Two Face from Batman Forever!
Plot-wise, however, the issue is that one of the many, many people the Punisher offs during the factory raid just happens to be undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari). This sends poor Franky into a tizzy where he has to face the familiar subject-for-brooding of "have I become that which I have fought so hard against?" Thus, he flees back to his underground hideout, carved into the subway... much like Lex Luthor's in 1978's Superman! Flashing back to his own origin (in which his wife and kids are killed by mobsters, setting him about his task) Frank's guilt leads him to help out Nicky's widow Angela (Julie Benz again up against a "Jigsaw") and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas), who want nothing to do with him. Nicky's old partner Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), on the other hand, is just dying to get his hands on Frank to either send him to hell or shake his hand, depending on the needs of the screenplay during any given five minute period. Thus, this erstwhile Fed joins the NYPD's "Punisher Task Force", which appears to consist only of one cop: Martin Soap (Dash Mihok!)
But wait, there's more! Punisher: War Zone isn't even CLOSE to being finished with overloading the plot with characters. On the bright side are Linus "Microchip" Lieberman (Wayne Knight, who must need the money) and former criminal Carlos Cruz (Carlos Gonzalez-vlo). On the dark side is just about every gangster from every neighborhood in New York. Most notably Jigsaw's brother "Looney Bin Jim", played by Doug Hutchison. Yeah, tell me, please, is it lost on anybody that when we last saw Dougie in The Green Mile he was catatonic in a mental hospital and when we first see Dougie in Punisher: War Zone he's catatonic in a mental hospital? Lame.
All of these fluid, inconsistent and undeveloped characters (and many, many more) all collide in the final act, that is set up to be The Punisher's "one last big job before retirement", but is really just a setup for what Lionsgate hopes will be another sequel.
While there are a couple of admittedly cool action moments in this film, the script is a complete mess which bounces around in its most ridiculous ways all over tarnation and back. That's not to say that the direction of Oscar Nominee (Best Short Film for 2003's Johnny Flynton) Lexi Alexander is without blame here. While she does know action reasonably well, that seems to be just about all she knows. Each scene is pumped with what should be Punisher-like action, but feels like a wad of paint-by-numbers obligations. Anything outside of the action category comes off as unintentionally funny. Even moments that should be touching or dramatic serve to cause involuntary eye-rolls in the audience. Frank's largely academic and theoretical drama with Grace and Angela could most certainly have been handled better and such a subplot truly deserved better. It's just hard to believe that Alexander took this film seriously. The areas in which actual (meaning, not ironic) comedy is intended are ridiculously farcical to the level of something one might find in Epic Movie!
Naturally the bad script and bad directing had one hell of a taxing effect on the acting. In addition, a big detraction to the acting here can be found in the remarkably bad and unconvincing dialects! Somehow Nadia Venesse was credited as "dialogue coach: pre-production". I haven't heard this many bad, stereotypical Italian Accents in... well, ever. The Italian Anti-Defamation League should sue. The mannerisms, voices, speech patterns and word usage are straight out of some vaguely racist spoof of The Sopranos on Mad TV or Saturday Night Live!
Further, none of the actors seem to have spent too much time with the script. Benz, who is a good actress in most things, gives a Married to the Mob-reminiscent performance that seems to consist of nothing but her first takes. West, who is British, gives possibly the worst, most over-acted and ridiculous "Italian American" accent in the entire flick. This could spring from the fact that he comes off as embarrassed to be in this film and gears his performance as if to prove he didn't consider this real work. But at least he succeeds in hiding his real accent. Both Stevenson and Salmon work hard on covering up their own English Accents and fail about a quarter of the time. You hear that? Acclaimed actor Colin Salmon gives an unconvincing performance. Something's wrong here! Not that it matters much when virtually everyone treated this film as a joke (albeit a darkly comical joke with blood, death-crap and blown off faces). New York native Dash Mihok similarly performs like a bully who wants to make fun of New Yorkers with insulting impressions. The only actor who seems to take his part seriously, thankfully, is Ray Stevenson who really tries here and (for the most part) has that "Punisher" look down. The result, however, is one straight-man in a cast full of clowns who would prefer to be in better movies.
The real sadness here is what this film could have been. Taking a very serious comic book like the "Marvel Knights" Punisher series and basing a movie on the most gritty and realistic aspects could have made for a brilliant movie for fans. Certainly there are fans out there who can appreciate some of this film. As a fan, myself, I couldn't stop thinking that this was much more of an insult to the source material than a valid companion piece. The graphic novel The Punisher Meets Archie was better and more ernestly, handled than this. In some ways they did capture the weighty character of The Punisher and his unending war on criminals. In most ways they really could have taken him a lot more seriously. This isn't to say that the 2004 film was a perfect movie, but at least they preserved the weighty, dignified themes of The Punisher. This one, in spite of the fact that it shares a title with one of the characters more interesting and gritty comics, has next to nothing but violence in common with its source material.
With its derivative script, ridiculous moments and intentional comedy that simply isn't funny, Punisher: War Zone might appeal most to the less mature moviegoer who wants action and silliness above all. However, with its R-Rating and very bloody imagery, good luck getting in without a fake ID. I hate to do it, but Punisher: War Zone gets a DOG! True, the film has its fans who will claim it exceeds the 2004 film and the 1989 attempt. It might be veritable MINUTES of fun for some, especially if they're high on something or other, but note that it debuted at number 8 at the box office, making less than five million dollars in its opening weekend before quickly vanishing. The film does and will have its audience... but it won't be big and just how seriously they take it is the big question. Who knows? Maybe in another four (or is it five?) years, Lionsgate and Marvel can collaborate on yet another re-imagined reboot. See you in the next reel, regardless of what happens there.
And that's just MY WRITING!
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