Saturday, August 11, 2012

Above The Film's Adaptation Nation: The Punisher Part 3

Welcome back, true believers, and happy Fourth of July! So to celebrate the amazingly ridiculousness and violence that is America let’s take a look at 2008’s gore-filled underdog Punisher: War Zone.


Like last time, I’ll send you off to a trailer for the movie first before diving into it.
With such a serious trailer, one would never suspect the actual experience they would encounter with this film. I believe the only way to describe this movie is with the term “grindhouse movie.” This is also exactly how director Lexi Alexander describes it in an interview she did with the amazingly funny podcast How Did This Get Made? (I highly recommend both that episode and the podcast itself.) Everything that made the previous film a great homage to action movies is stripped away and replaced with a slapping together of blood and heavy metal music.
With the somewhat financial success both Marvel and Lions Gate achieved with the 2004 Punisher film, they set forth to green-light a sequel. Over the course of several years of production problems, with producers being unhappy with scripts, several rewrites and having to abandon a plot that originally took place in New Orleans (due to Hurricane Katrina) director Jonathan Hensleigh dropped off the production. Now only star Thomas Jane remained. Several more scripts for the film were written and re-written including a draft by Kurt Sutter (creator and head writer of FX’s Sons of Anarchy) and as time went on Jane felt the film was moving in a direction he did not agree with and in 2007 dropped from the film.
This time around Frank Castle, already several years (and thousands of bodies) into his career as The Punisher must faceoff (pun intended) with his most famous of villains from the comics, Jigsaw. After crashing a mob meeting in a mansion somewhere near New York City and brutally killing most of it’s attendees The Punisher tracks Billy “The Beaut” Russoti, a narcissistic mob peon with delusions of grandeur,  down to a recycling plant used as a hideout, and throws him into a some sort of bottle-smasher machine which cuts Billy’s face into a mangled, FUBAR mess. However in the process Frank mistakenly kills an undercover FBI agent working to take Billy’s gang down. While Frank battles with his conscience over killing a good guy and the FBI teams up with NYPD’s one-man Punisher Task Force, Billy has a plastic surgeon attempt to rebuild his face, instead turning him into a grotesque patchwork looking freak. Billy declares that he shall now be known as Jigsaw and sets his sights on destroying The Punisher for what he did.
The acting this time around fits right into the B-movie setting that the film seems to be going for. This means characters that are either unbelievably over the top, characters that are almost lifeless phone-ins, or terrible caricatures. The accent every mobster bad guy had was so terribly over done it feels like the cast of MadTV showed up to do a skit about The Sopranos. The big thing the article needs to address though, is The Punisher himself, and how Ray Stevenson (Kill the Irishman, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) did in his turn as Frank.
Stevenson’s portrayal of Frank Castle is a little odd at times, but is still more in line with what he was in the Punisher MAX books. While in the comics he was powerhouse more because he was now in 60s and still fighting a war on crime that he could no longer do in a more agile fashion, Stevenson is just all around a big man, and therefore couldn’t do that to begin with. While Stevenson is a big guy and there intimidating in that fashion, it is quite obvious through out the movie that he is not much of a runner. Throw wafflestompers and a bomb-disposal-vest on his and he flat-foots his way around about as fast as an Ent. He does what good he can with the dialogue he is given, but it’s obvious that most of his lines were meant to just be growled threats and terrible rehashes of lines from the previous movie.
“God’s going to sit this one out.” - The Punisher (2004)
“Sometimes, I’d like to get my hands on God.” - Punisher: War Zone (2008)
This movie is exactly what Garth Ennis’s run on the Punisher comics was. Full of nudity, swearing, over-the-top violence and ridiculously two-dimensional villains that is all done in the name of being crazy fun. Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) took several of the more brutal scenes of violence and action straight from comic itself. From knives through the skull, shotguns to the face, and right up to shooting a man with a rocket launcher, this was The Punisher as Ennis had envisioned him. They had even pulled in characters like Detective Soap and Maginty from the Punisher MAX comics and old favorites like Microchip from the original run of the comic to try and capture as much of Frank’s universe as they could. Lexi even worked countless hours along side Director of Photography Steve Gainer (Mysterious Skin, Super) planning shots and lighting scenes in order to make a movie that was not just based on a comic but actually looked like living panels taken from the comic. The coloring, the set design, the lighting, everything was build and planned in meticulous detail for this reason. This was what the creative team wanted, and this is where the general audience fell away.
Anyone who wasn’t an avid reader of the bloody and vulgar comic book, but instead knew the character from his previous movie walked away from Punisher: War Zone with a bad taste in their mouth. The 2004 film built itself as it’s own story that was more of an emotional story about a man losing his family, while four years later the franchise is reboot to be the story about a near-emotionless killing machine that no audience member could honestly see in a sympathetic light. While Lexi Alexander wanted to make a movie the fans of the comic would love, she sacrificed the fans of the other movie to do it. While I can’t fault her for it, no one will ever please 100% of the people who see their movie, this was the major downfall of the movie. It was aimed at comic book fans, not movie goers, and that is ultimately the big thing comic book movies struggled with for the first decade of the 21st century.
So in the end, War Zone actually went in the opposite direction that many other comic book movies has done before. It was too much a movie for the fans of the comic book. The Punisher’s b-movie book, because an actual b-movie. Fans of the book rejoiced and loved the film, but it wasn’t enough to save it from the critical pandering it took and the financial failure it was at the box office. I personally loved the movie as a great popcorn flick with everything I’d come to love about the comic books, but in the end, it didn’t really hold up as a movie on it’s own.
I give this one 2 out of 4 skulls

Next Time: I bring this first series to a close with a look at The Punisher comic of today, and it’s future both in the panels and on the screen.

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