Ray Stevenson stars in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, directed by Lexi Alexander for Lionsgate.

Punisher: War Zone (2008, Lexi Alexander)

Punisher: War Zone got a theatrical release (sorry for the passive voice, but pointing out Lionsgate released it in the theater sort of kills the emphasis). I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to describe the terrible script. Watching an early exchange between mobsters, I kept wondering if Italian American associations were aware of the film (I’m guessing they aren’t). The characters are so stereotypical, the portrayal so offensive… it’s incredible. But the mob being the movie’s big villains elucidates War Zone‘s biggest (narrative) idiocy–it’s just a hodgepodge of superhero movies. The movie rips off an opening scene from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One comic book, but then cribs the entire approach from Batman Begins (where the hero doesn’t actually fight crime unrelated to the plot’s main villain). But there’s a Superman reference in the subway hideout and some other malarky I’m sure. The script’s idiotic.

So why watch Punisher: War Zone? The terrible opening credits don’t give any indication of it, but Michael Wandmacher’s score is good and Steve Gainer’s photography is fantastic. The photography seems to go for HDR (high dynamic range), which makes the Panavision frame wondrous at times. Lexi Alexander intercuts Manhattan skyscrapers with Montréal streets to poor effect–actually, Montréal’s a decent stand-in, physically, for New York, but Alexander’s movie New York is one of the most absurd I’ve ever seen. It’s like she’s not only never been there, she hasn’t even watched a movie set there. Alexander’s actually a decent director. She has an annoying Panavision habit of putting people, in cuts, on opposite sides of the frame, but by the end of the movie, she’s got it working. She’d direct great commercials or music videos, since she can’t impart any emotionality to her work. There isn’t a single subtle moment in War Zone, it’s just too stupid.

Some of the stupidest developments in the film are the inclusion of Wayne Knight as a sidekick and the revelation the Punisher dropped out of seminary. I don’t know why the latter got included, maybe so they could have a dumb scene with the Punisher at church, but it’s one of the stupider things in the film. Knight’s sidekick, who seemingly funds the Punisher’s war on selected criminals from a tiny apartment, is also something else. Knight–even with the goatee–isn’t bad. He’s got some dumb lines, but he isn’t bad.

Producer Gale Anne Hurd has made some big movies and some good movies. Presumably, while on set, she must have noticed Ray Stevenson couldn’t act. He’s atrocious as the lead. Punisher: War Zone has a future as a drinking game. Alexander barely gives him any lines, but he flubs every single one of them. Julie Benz (is she the Lionsgate version of 1990s Miramax Neve Campbell or something?) is awful. Colin Salmon, who’s usually good, gives a terrible performance. Talking about him, I forgot to mention the stupid last names. Everyone in the film has a super-ethnic last name, presumably to make it more authentic. Dash Mihok, in the movie’s supposedly comic role, is terrible. Alexander and the script don’t understand humor. They should have brought Rob Schneider or the guys who wrote Beverly Hills Ninja in to give it some oomph.

But talking about the actors brings me to the real reason to watch Punisher: War Zone. Dominic West. He’s not stretching any thespian muscles in his portrayal of a psycho (oh, another comic book movie reference, the Burton Batman), but he’s a joy to watch. Given the filmmakers were able to hire West to appear in this cinematic turd, it’s a testament to their jaw-dropping lack of intelligence they didn’t fire Stevenson and put West in the lead. If he can make this underwritten goober of a role work, imagine what he could have done as the Punisher.

As West’s cannibal sidekick, Doug Hutchinson is fine. He’s been acting for a long time, so Alexander’s ineptness at directing actors mustn’t have contaminated him.

Punisher: War Zone is watchable dreck. The movie looks good–Alexander’s action scenes concentrate too much on the gore instead of, well, any action–and West is a joy to watch. I wonder if anyone involved in the film has seen “The Wire,” but all evidence suggests not. And it’s definitely one of Lionsgate’s less appalling pictures.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lexi Alexander; screenplay by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; director of photography, Steve Gainer; edited by William Yeh; music by Michael Wandmacher; production designer, Andrew Neskoromny; produced by Gale Anne Hurd; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Ray Stevenson (Frank Castle), Dominic West (Billy Russoti), Doug Hutchison (Loony Bin Jim), Colin Salmon (Special Agent Paul Budiansky), Wayne Knight (Microchip), Dash Mihok (Det. Martin Soap) and Julie Benz (Angela Donatelli).


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