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Marvel Movies Project: Punisher: War Zone

Movie poster for Punisher: War Zone (2008).

Like The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone (2008) is a reboot. Thomas Jane is out as Frank Castle, replaced by Ray Stevenson. In The Punisher, Castle was an undercover cop whose entire family, including his wife and son, was killed in revenge for the death of a mobster’s son; in this version of events, Castle’s wife and two children are murdered after the family witnesses a mob execution during the worst family picnic ever.

Also like The Incredible Hulk, though, Punisher: War Zone largely skips over its protagonist’s origin story, only providing bits and pieces through explanatory dialogue and some brief flashbacks. Again, we get the feeling we’re supposed to come into the movie with prior knowledge of who this guy is and an understanding of his mission statement. That mission, of course, is killing criminals — specifically, the members of mafia crime families.

Enter Dominic West doing a very bad Italian-American accent as “Bobby the Beaut,” an extremely vain mobster who falls into a vat of broken glass; due to the resulting facial scarring, he renames himself Jigsaw. He and his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Dough Hutchison, who will always be Tooms from The X-Files to me), are the cartoonishly horrible bad guys in this film. First Omar shows up in The Incredible Hulk, now we’ve got McNulty in this movie: The Wire fan in me is loving this trend. Speaking of classic HBO, I’ve been having a bit of a Sopranos marathon lately, which made the mobsters in this movie feel even more exaggerated than they already are.

In a raid on one of Bobby/Jigsaw’s hideouts, The Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. He feels immensely guilty over this and tries to make up for it by protecting the agent’s wife and daughter when Jigsaw’s crew goes after them. In an interesting bit of casting, Julie Benz, known to many as Rita from Dexter (and also Darla from Buffy and Angel), plays the wife. Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who only kills criminals who escape justice, is of course very similar to The Punisher in a lot of ways. (Ray Stevenson has also appeared on Dexter since this film was made.)

My main complaint about the first Punisher movie was that it made almost no attempt to deal with the character’s moral ambiguity. Punisher: War Zone does a slightly better job of at least raising the issue, but ultimately it pretty much lets him off the hook, with Benz’s character telling him he’s “one of the good guys” and an ending that seems to compare Frank Castle to Jesus!? Right then. It occurs to me that Dexter might provide a good model for any future Punisher-related projects. The show is masterful at making the audience think of Dexter as the hero while also reminding us how messed up it is that we think of him that way. Both Punisher movies have leaned too close to the side of glorifying him for my taste.

This one is also a little too violent for me. Never before have I seen a movie with so many exploding heads in it. I am generally not that bothered by violence, but this was excessive to the point that I felt a little sick to my stomach. I also feel this film suffers from the same mixed tone issues that sunk Daredevil. On the one hand, Frank Castle is the dark, broody, stoic hero. On the other hand, the villains are all totally outlandish. It doesn’t quite gel.

Apparently, the movie rights for The Punisher are now back with Marvel and there are plans to put him on screen in some form again, or at least there were in 2010. Call me crazy, but I think it would be possible to do a really excellent, high class Punisher movie or TV series. I’d use Dexter as a model, and I’d go with a more serious tone: No Country for Old Men comes to mind as something to emulate. (Ok, maybe I really am crazy.)

Alternatively, get Quentin Tarantino to direct the next one. That’s a match made in heaven right there.

Marvel Movies Project: The Punisher

I’m seven films into this Marvel Movies Project and one of the most interesting things so far is the widely different target audiences for these first few films. There’s Spider-Man, which despite being quite violent is fairly kid-friendly. The X-Men franchise seems aimed at teens and up.  The rest of the movies, perhaps surprisingly, are more adult in tone. Daredevil is not as dark as it probably should be, but it does hold the distinction of including the first Marvel movie sex scene. (Granted, it is about as non-graphic as sex scenes get, but still.) Eric Bana’s bare butt makes an appearance in Hulk; on top of that, it’s hard to imagine kids being very interested in Bruce Banner and his weirdo father. Finally, there’s the Blade movies, grotesque and darkly violent with plenty of swearing: definitely not for the children. Which brings us to movie number eight:

Movie poster for The Punisher (2004)

Marvel’s most twisted hero character made it to the screen in 2004 in a movie I hope no one took their kids to see. The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, is sadly not about a superhero who loves puns, but rather a retired FBI agent who turns to vigilantism after his entire family is massacred. When I say entire family, I mean his wife, child, mother, father, siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, cousins — this is a very thorough job. (Luckily, cousin Rick and his daughter Alexis skipped the family reunion that year.) Castle just wants his family back, but this is impossible. So, instead, he decides to seek revenge on the man responsible for their deaths — Howard Saint, played by John Travolta — by taking out his entire family, plus his entire criminal empire.

While carrying out his plan, Castle lives in a very strange apartment building with some very odd neighbours, two of whom are played by Rebecca Romijn, also known to Marvel fans as Mystique, and Ben Foster, who would go on to co-star in X-Men: The Last Stand. His interactions with these individuals gives the vengeance-obsessed Castle a bit of a connection to the human world and their scenes serve to lighten things up for a few minutes … until a team of hitmen shows up at the building and Foster’s character is having his piercings ripped out because he won’t give up Castle’s location.

Overall, this film is a dark and violent affair with offbeat characters and several bizarre moments (singing assassin Harry Heck!). Dark, violent, and weird: based on the stuff I’ve read (admittedly not that much), that is a pretty faithful representation of what Punisher comics are like. The movie contains a few very cool sequences, notably Castle’s insane fight with the blond Russian giant and his absolutely epic final revenge on Howard Saint, but I don’t think there are any outstanding performances. Thomas Jane is acceptable but not excellent (though hunky) and John Travolta is, well, John Travolta. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great one either.

The Punisher, who first appeared in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, can be an interesting character; unlike Marvel’s other heroes, he kills people on purpose and he does it without much regret. He’s a descendant of wild west vigilantes — a lineage the film seems to draw on by including a couple of western elements, notably in the opening credits — and the ancestor of Dexter Morgan and other anti-heroes who right wrongs by illegal and morally questionable means. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deal with the character’s shades of grey at all, never really questioning whether what Frank Castle is doing might be wrong, and ending with the idea that “in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law.” The whole thing ends up feeling a bit like an NRA propaganda piece. It’s unfortunate.