Sunday, February 10, 2013

Signal Watches: Punisher - War Zone

So, yeah.

I'm, at best, a casual reader of The Punisher comics from Marvel.  Back in the 80's, when Punisher was sort of relevant in the wake of a few Deathwish movies (clearly the idea behind the character came from Bronson), and Bernhard Goetz had opened fire on a NYC Subway, I recall names like Mike Zeck, Klaus Janson and a young Jim Lee working on Punisher stuff.

I've tried various Punisher comics over the years, but it's a book that, when I'm not reading it, I don't really miss.  Watching someone stone cold execute people because they're "mobsters" or "criminals" - gets kind of stale after a while.  Yes, I started reading Ennis's run, and enjoyed it.  I intended to read it as trades, and just never got around to it.  I am reading Rucka's stuff, and it's good, solid, Rucka - if a bit spot on the nose "oh, of course he has a broken female protagonist" Rucka, but that doesn't mean its not worth checking out.


Back in the 80's, in the wake of the Burton-film Batman craze, someone figured out that there was a comic book "superhero" that wouldn't cost a bajillion dollars to bring to the big screen.  Somehow this meant we wound up with a Punisher movie with Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle and Louis Gossett, Jr. as a black detective who was getting too old for this shit.  The movie is a perfect storm of 80's sensibilities, and worth seeing as an odd time capsule of the violent, schlocky, weirdly sexed, xenophobic low-budget actioners of the era.

It was supposed to arrive in theaters, and much like the following year's Captain America, it got buried on home video.

Of course around 2005 we got the Thomas Jane Punisher reboot, but from the 1/2- 1/3rd of it I saw, it looks like someone insisted on a star in the film, and that meant that they wound up with a distracting John Travolta.  And, either because John Travolta felt like spending a couple months in Florida or because Florida was offering tax breaks, our very NYC-based hero got relocated to the beaches of the Sunshine State.

Again, the movie was schlocky in many ways, and you just feel bad for poor Thomas Jane, the only one working on the movie with a feel for why the Punisher has some appeal and what makes him work as a character.

About a year ago, I was listening to the podcast How Did This Get Made?, which looks at movies and asks either "how did movie making go so wrong as to make this movie and release it?" or - always more interesting to me - "how did this movie ever get made in Hollywood?", depending on the whims of the hosts.

In a lot of ways, I don't even want to talk much about Punisher: War Zone, the Christmas 2008 Punisher movie that was released to poor notices and zilcho at the box office.

What I would recommend you do is listen to the entire podcast of How Did This Get Made? where they interview the beleagured and baffled director of the movie.  And they're all for the movie.  I am far less enthusiastic.

Still, the interview is worth listening to, because it's honest as all hell, and you hear the sort of decision making that happens in Hollywood, where the dreams of creating transformative art and even winning Oscar Gold doesn't put bread on the table.  Making a mint on a superhero picture is what you need to do to impress anyone who has the clout to cut a check.

The subtext I took away from the interview was: this is one smart director, and she tried very hard to figure out what made this character work, but maybe web fan-forums aren't the place to get what you really need, maybe trying to copy and paste from the comics is trickier than it looks (Zack Snyder).  But, maybe making an Oscar winning short is a completely different job than taking on a pretty grim street vigilante movie.

I don't know.  I'd heard a lot of good going in, but the movie feels weird and choppy in the first half, like they knew they had scenes they needed to stick together, and so a stream of cliches tie together for about 45 minutes until we roll into the actual plot.  Mobsters transformed in vats (really?), the snooty FBI moving in on the turf of the saggy city cops, and yelling.  Oh my GOD so many actors choosing to go for "angry".  And, oh, the exposition.  Its hanging from walls and dripping from windows.

I don't want to enumerate the things that didn't work for me.  It just feels like a late-night b-movie actioner with a slightly puffed-up budget.  But after 2 prior failures on The Punisher, and one in recent memory with star power behind it, everything about this movie is kind of baffling.

I found myself more than once just looking at the screen and asking "...why?" as the action unfolded and things occurred (some arguably vaguely maybe racist things).

Actor Ray Stevenson is probably as good as Thomas Jane as The Punisher in a completely different way.  I honestly expected less of him, but there's some real clunker scenes where we get some "insight" into Frank Castle, and while its obvious the script got away from everyone, but Stevenson really hangs in there.

Probably because prior to her career as a filmmaker, director Lexi Alexander was a martial artist, the Punisher of this movie doesn't flip and zip around.  He slogs heavily, he's got mass and weight.  His fight scenes aren't deft bits of ridiculousness.  When people are hitting each other, sure, I bought it as the human-speed brutality it was.

The movie takes a cue from the comics of the past ten years, and the violence quotient if ratcheted up, and - like in the comics - it sometimes feels like the Red Coats lining up against someone with a chain gun.  And Alexander doesn't shy away from the blood and mess - after all, that's a Marvel Knights comic for you, kids.

But, in the end, the movie is just too rickety, seemingly unaware that it's tricked itself out in what anyone who grew up watching actiioners would recognize as dated cliches, and always just seems to miss the landing.


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