Quick: name the director with the best comic timing of 2008. A lot of obvious names come to mind, and when I’m off the blood simple high that currently clouds my judgment I’m sure I’ll be able to settle down and agree that it is Ben Stiller or David Gordon Green, maybe David Wain or Jody Hill or someone else I’m completely glossing over. But right now, my answer is Lexi Alexander.
I don’t mean that in any condescending, elitist way. I’m not laughing at Alexander by any means. After seeing Punisher: War Zone an hour ago (I’m not giving this sucker any room to fade) I fully believe that I was meant to have a great time watching Ray Stevenson butcher most of New York’s criminal population as the comic book vigilante Frank Castle.
In case you’re wondering, this is what kind of movie Punisher: War Zone is: it’s the movie where a church altar is decorated with a massive neon cross. Where the massively scarred bad guy saunters down the street like friggin’ Tony Manero*. Where you expect the coke-sniffing young goon to have his powder vial appropriately jammed up his nose, but a fist is just punched through his face instead. And it’s the comic book movie where the super-serious title character doesn’t speak for half an hour — because he’s just that bad a motherfucker — but where you’re probably going to be too busy having fun to notice.
Since Steven Grant and Mike Zeck launched their Punisher mini-series in the mid-’80s — the only material I’ve ever really liked, based more on the appeal of Zeck’s art than that of the character — this has been a deadly serious character. He’s Marvel’s Batman, empowered by bullets and shorn of respect for life. That has led to cinematic disasters like the Thomas Jane film from 2004, where the approach was to make a film as serious and self-important as the character tries to be. I love Jane, and think he’s great for the character, but that vision didn’t work at all.
War Zone takes a totally different direction. It’s blood-drenched pop culture, fun and goofy and shockingly, gleefully violent. It’s like watching Death Wish-era Charles Bronson put a bullet in the eye of self-important modern action clichés. I’m sure you dig parkour sequences in films like Casino Royale, but you’re going to love watching Frank Castle give an explosive finger to the combat viability of parkour even more.
I’ve been sold on Rome‘s Ray Stevenson as the Punisher ever since the first photos surfaced of him in character. He looks and moves like an old soldier, tired and running on pure adrenaline. Stevenson’s Punisher looks like he could keel over any time he stops moving, but in motion he’s terrifyingly efficient and brutal. Stevenson doesn’t speak much, but when he does it sounds right, too, tired and grim. He even got me to enjoy a line like ‘sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God’ in the spirit intended. That spirit being some rarified form of comedy, but still.
This Frank Castle isn’t quite the vengeance-driven nutjob I expected to see. He’s too ready to give it up, too weary of the grind. If I cared about why the Punisher is driven to whack criminals I’d see Castle’s murky motivation as a problem. We’re given a dash of backstory — his family was killed after witnessing a mob hit — but Alexander barely seems interested. I agree that the backstory is not relevant. If you’re likely to enjoy a movie like War Zone you want to see how Castle puts a million rounds into the mob, not why. The medium is the motivation.
The vengeance-driven nutjob role is covered pretty well by his nemesis, Jigsaw. Dominic West plays the character broad like the flooded Nile. He’s a mashup of the Nicholson Joker and Frank Gorshin Riddler, with the most exaggerated New York Italian accent possible. The film’s first major dialogue sequence is an astoundingly ridiculous meeting between West and an old mob boss played as a tangle of phonics, one over-caricatured accent slamming into another. Played straight the effect would be terrible, but Alexander and all her actors seem to be winking at us, demonstrating just how the movie is going to play.
Devin references the original ’60s Batman and serious meth when talking about the colored light and neon that defines War Zone‘s aesthetic. To me the effect is much more of Dario Argento rendering a comic book in his Suspiria/ era, albeit without the sonic style that made Argento’s good period so bloody good. The effect is the same — it screams ‘comic book’ in the way that comic book movies since InfernoX-Men have so frequently tried to avoid. The effect is a heightening of the silliness of the basic concept, and a tacit admission that we’re just sitting down to watch crazy things happen for ninety minutes.
And that’s exactly what goes down. I so badly want to recount all of the crazy kills — some of which could be on screen for a few more frames, so let’s hope for a slightly longer DVD cut — but I don’t want to spoil it. All I’ll say is that in a week when I’m scouring old films for horrifying murders to add to our ‘Kid Kills’ list, this movie still stands out as insane. And that’s a beautiful thing.
*That was a Nunziata observation, and while I’m stealing it, I’m at least not doing so with a total lack of respect.