(2008 ) Director: Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) | Writers: Too Many to Name
If the quantity of exploding heads in a given film were any indication of that film’s artistic worth, then Punisher: War Zone would end up with a dump truck full of Oscars come next spring. Of course, by the end of the year there will likely be some independent film about transsexual deep-sea welders with regressive dwarfism that catches the hearts of Academy voters, leaving War Zone and its cloying abundance of violence in the dust on the Kodak Theatre red carpet. And as a connoisseur of gore, trust me: War Zone is very, very violent.
But this film is also a considerable achievement in the realm of women’s rights, because, although there have been female directors of violent wide-release films before, such as Mary Harron and Julie Taymor, War Zone director Lexi Alexander has become, if my own research is to be believed, the first woman to direct such a big, dumb, outlandishly gory, and poorly-written movie. Welcome to the club, Ms. Alexander. By the fireplace to your left is John McTiernan. The gentleman relieving himself in the corner is Renny Harlin.
Luckily for Alexander, her movie is surprisingly enjoyable in a way the last incarnation of the Punisher—the 2004 Thomas Jane crapfest—wasn’t, in that the former possesses a smattering of tongue-in-cheek sensibility to go along with all its cartoonish violence and campy dialogue, while the latter was far too self-aware of its own presumed coolness for such a leadenly-paced, dour exercise. War Zone is not the more-serious film some expected it to be, but it’s one heck of a stupid, bloody ride.
Not quite a sequel, but not really a reboot, War Zone follows a retirement-minded Frank Castle, aka the Punisher (Ray Stevenson, Rome), back into the killing game when the accidental death of an undercover FBI agent leads the vigilante to protect the dead agent’s widow and daughter the only way he knows how: by murdering everyone on Earth. Well, maybe not that many people, but a lot.
For as tonally dark and violent as War Zone is, everyone appearing onscreen seems to have fun with it, from a group of meth-addicted free runners—led by a dreadlocked Caribbean man with braces—to bad guy Jigsaw, played with overacting aplomb by Dominic West (The Wire). In fact, the only actor in the sea of poorly-accented thespians who presents a modicum of gravity is Stevenson, whose subtle expressions and sad eyes suggest the pain behind his justice-fueled killing spree. It’s almost sad to think that Stevenson would be a great Punisher in a purposefully dramatic adaptation of the comic. I highly doubt it’ll ever happen.
But where War Zone really shines is in its horrendous dialogue, an aspect of its run-of-the-mill script that elevates the film into High Camp; I have to believe, considering the subject matter, that the decision to offer such embarrassingly awful lines as “Aw, now I’ve got brains all over me” as comedic relief is a sign of intention. In this way War Zone is a kind of neon-lit, thought-free antithesis to this summer’s The Dark Knight, a dirge-like (although brilliant) dramatic rumination on the responsibilities of the superhero. To watch Bruce Wayne’s life and his city crumble under the reign of a madman is to experience breathtaking, tragic drama, yes; but watching Frank Castle vaporize drug dealers with a rocket launcher is just plain awesome.
By embracing the stupidity of her source material where her predecessors struggled against it, Alexander has made an over-the-top spectacle as unbelievable and visceral as any comic book adaptation before it. It’s mindless and miles away from perfect, but if you can stomach caved-in heads and second grade reading-level dialogue, War Zone is definitely worth the price of a ticket.
Rating: Three of Five Stars