It’s not every day I get excited about a movie full of racist stereotypes and hardcore violence. In fact, when my friend borrowed me his copy of Punisher: War Zone (2009) I was not very keen on seeing the film, but I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
Punisher – the odd one out
Even though I haven’t yet, I’m also going to discuss Punisher comics in this blog. Even though he is not a superhero – at least not in the way that I define the word – he’s part of the Marvel Superhero Universe. Something I find hard to accept, since he really doesn’t fit in.
First there is the character himself. Frank Castle’s whole family dies on a picnic when they are caught in a crossfire between some mafiosos. Frank Castle is the only one to survive and vows to avenge the death of his family. As Punisher he descends into the gritty underground world to kill every last mafioso family in the city, and everyone else who gets in his way. With his special forces trainer background he becomes a one man killing machine wiping the city clean of all organized crime, one family of crime at a time. What’s noticeable is that Frank Castle has no superhuman abilities. He’s just a man with LOTS of guns.
The other thing that sets Punisher in weird perspective with all the other Marvel superheroes is that his world is really the grittiest there can be. In fact, the comics are downright racist in my opinion. It’s been many years since I last read them, but I do remember all the different nationalities in the comics portrayed in the worst possible manner. All Italians are of course mafiosos and even their wives carry automatic guns in their purses and are ready and willing to use them. All Jamaican (?) men have dreadlocks and smoke marihuana. All African-Americans are part of some street gang. Every bad guy is drawn to look ugly with bad skin and bad teeth. And the language is even worse with all the racist nicknames for each ethnic group in use.
The sad thing is, in the beginning Punisher comics were not that bad. Sure they vere violent and darker than the usual superhero comics, but the comics still had their heart in place. It was only later the Punisher comics turned into something so ugly and insulting to everyone that I stopped reading and buying them. After seeing this movie my husband told me that Punisher has become better in later years.
How to be racist without being racist
I must show my respect for the makers of Punisher: War Zone, because it must have been darn difficult to make a movie to suit all audiences from this racist and gritty material. How to make a true Punisher movie without upsetting every living being on this planet for racism yet still maintaining the true Punisher touches in it? By the gods, they succeeded in it! The clever thing is all the worst racist remarks are said by either the mafioso boss or by the two main villains in the movie, who all are clearly not likable guys anyhow. Especially when the mafia boss lets go with his sharp tongue in the beginning of the movie, it sort of makes clear we are going to stay loyal to the source material. Yet at the same time, since it’s now done, the director and writers have wisely let go off all the racist remarks and concentrated on the story.
The other clever thing is, the main villains of the movie are without race. Ok, they are Italians, but they could be of any race, since they are such characters on their own, it would be pretty ridiculous to describe them only as being Italians. :D The villains are Jigsaw (Dominic West), a pretty boy, who gets his face redone by Punisher, and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), who is at least as crazy as his name implies.
From pathetic to somewhere fantastic
The plot of the movie is in all its simplicity and with only very small spoilers as follows: Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is going after one mafioso family and kills them all – except for pretty boy Billy, who survives being severely cut by a glass crushing machine. The doctors try to save his Good Looks(TM), but since they used skin from a horse and apparently a staple gun instead of stiches to put his face back together, the end results are not quite as handsome as they used to be. Billy is maybe just a bit devastated and changes his name into Jigsaw. In a clever move, the writers have left out the story of how Frank Castle became Punisher and just tell it in few sentences and one flashback. Why bother spending time on that since everybody knows it already and it’s probably been done several times. Anyway, in hopes of getting his revenge on Punisher, Jigsaw goes and frees his totally-out-of-this-world-crazy brother Jim and together they get almost every crime syndicate to stand with them against Punisher. Involved in the movie is also a widow and the child of an undercover cop Punisher accidently shoots among Billy’s thugs.
The weird thing is, this movie starts out a bit pathetic. It seems the actors haven’t quite known yet how to approach their characters and the movie starts just a bit clumsily. It’s not bad, but it’s not very interesting either. Maybe it’s just the problem of having to introduce everybody involved before you can really get into the story. But once the hunt is on (it starts with that first and very sudden missile explosion – I laughed out loud) the movie gets close to excellent.
It seems at this point the actors and everyone in the team have really found the rhythm of the movie. The villains let it loose big time. Instead of being just crazy and disturbing, Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim turn into comedians with their overly bombastic acting. The highpoint for them is when the two of them sit in a car alone, and soon later go to visit all the other crime syndicates to ask for their help in taking Punisher down. The image is so ridiculous. This is especially great since at first I thought Loony Bin Jim was just a stupid character and I really didn’t get what the actor was trying to accomplish. In the car and scenes following that, the character works great. And same goes for Jigsaw. In the beginning Jigsaw seems just a stereotypical bad guy and as such he’s not very interesting. In fact, without his brother he’d be nothing. I would have hoped Jigsaw’s actor or maybe the writers could have given more thought on how to portray him turning from Billy with Good Looks(TM) into Jigsaw. Now the transition, the ultimate going-mad-monent is lost. Then again, he didn’t seem quite that sane even to begin with, so maybe that explains it…
“What, Pullo is Punisher?”
Yes, Ray Stevenson, Pullo (fin. bottle) from TV show Rome, plays Frank Castle/Punisher. At first when my husband pointed it out, I was rolling my eyes. You serious?! But once again I was wrong in my judgement. He is perfect for the part! I remember Stevenson only from Rome, but I really liked his character and thought he was fantastic. As for Punisher, the square jawed human tank of the comics… I didn’t see Stevenson fit the role. He just doesn’t look like Frank Castle and he has too much heart to be that killing machine human tank. But in fact, it was only a good thing. I think Stevenson’s performance was the only thing that gave soul to the movie. The thing is Ray Stevenson looks quite rough and therefore is believable as a police tactics trainer and ex-military man, but at the same time he has really expressive, deep eyes. Even though Punisher does kill villains in the most sadistic ways (like really, turning on the glass crusher when there is a man in there – ok, so he didn’t die, but still) at the same time he managed to seem like a very likable guy who was with the good guys and you’d almost hope he could become a new dad for the dead undercover cop’s daughter, because of how tenderly he seems to deal with her, and the sadness in his eyes. An especially good preformance since the mother and the daughter weren’t very good and couldn’t get as deep into their characters as Stevenson did.
I must mention just two more things, and the first one is the lighting of this film. Since the movie is so dark and gloomy and takes place during night, also all the sets happen to be dark and gloomy. There is a danger the whole movie turns into a dark and bit depressed with all its dark themes. Therefore it has been an interesting choice for the film crew to use very strong coloured lights, painting whole buildings bright green with light, or alleys with blue light. At first it was a bit of a visual shock, but I grew accustomed to it quite soon and even liked it. The only point when it bothered was in the church, which looks like an Egyptian bazaar by night with all its light cable wrapped palm trees. Perfect for an Egyptian bazaar but not so much for the church. I think they might have tried to get bit of the same kitchiness that’s seen in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet but didn’t quite get it. But otherwise, I liked the strong colours.
And the last thing I need to mention is the violence. I have nothing against a good action flick with a “normal” amount of violence. Making a Punisher movie, it is pretty much given there will be a lot of gritty, graphic violence, since it’s present in the source material, too. The comic is also filled with sadistic violence, which is where I draw the line. Thus the movie, too, is filled with sadistic and very graphic violence. Very deservingly the movie is suitable only for people of 18 years or over. YET somehow, and this I can’t explain, the violence didn’t bother me like it should have. I have no idea how it is possible. Maybe it was because all the violence was there only as something that happens as expected, instead of something that is underlined and glorified, like in many other movies. Somehow the director Lexi Alexander took off something from the normal imagery of movie violence that bothers me otherwise and made it tolerable to me. Later I heard she in fact hates violence herself and wasn’t even that interested in directing it in the first place because of its excessive violence (How Did This Get Made? # 20: Punisher: War Zone). Maybe that’s her secret. (By the way, that podcast is really good. Listen it.)
Lexi, if you ever read this, thank you. You did a marvelous job and I’m very happy it was you making this movie and not some crazy loves-violence-dude.
I’m positively surprised at how good this movie is and I’m definitely going to buy it for myself. (Thanks, Mikko!) Now, don’t get excited, this is not an excellent movie, compared to movies in general, but for a Punisher movie I find it hard to believe there could be a much better version than this, considering the source material. And that being said, you shouldn’t think this is a bad movie in any way. Making a Punisher movie must be really difficult since you are always juggling on the edge of good/bad taste and what is appropriate. Also the racism and the violence must be quite scary for the movie production and distribution companies, because with bad luck you can end up upsetting every ethnic group there is and also drawing unpleasant attention to Marvel’s direction, making them angry in turn.
So as a Punisher movie this is excellent. The character, the mood, and the storyline are all spot on. I wasn’t supposed to like this kind of movie, but I did. And I could even take the splatter type violence. AND the movie was surprisingly funny.
Not the movie for the first date, nor the second, but otherwise two thumbs up. :)
All images, except for the two first ones, are screencaptures from the movie Punisher – War Zone (2009).
P.S. My DVD box claims this movie came out in 2009, but IMDB.com says it came out already 2008. In case this version I saw differs from the one shown in movie theaters, I decided to refer to the movie with year 2009.