2008 was, without a doubt, the year of the comic book movie. Along side the earth shattering success of The Dark Knight, there was the surprisingly impressive Hulk movie, and the Robert Downey Jr. resurrection machine known as Iron Man. Both turned out to be great movies in their own right, with the Hulk finally getting the balance between the rage fueled violence and the plight of the scientist with a curse right, and with Iron Man, where Downey Jr. literally transformed himself into a living, breathing Tony Stark.
So then why didn’t anyone pay any attention to Punisher War Zone? Maybe it was because the 2004 entry was almost universally panned for being quite atrocious. Maybe because it didn’t have anywhere near the hype and media coverage that the big three got. Maybe because it’s R rated (and let me tell you, its earns ALL of that R rating and then some). Maybe it’s because the plot concerning an ex-military mans family being slaughtered because they witnessed a mob killing is just to grim for most audiences. Whatever the reason, it’s truly a damn shame, because against what seemed like all odds, the old adage of “third times a charm” came shining through, and Frank Castle finally get his long overdue opus on the silver screen.
The Punisher to me, always seemed like the safest and easiest bet of all the Marvel heroes to turn into a feature film. There’s no expensive CGI and complicated suits to create. There’s no interplanetary or ridiculously complex scientific origin to the hero. His appearance is just that of a middle-aged tired and emotionally distraught Italian male. And he actually doesn’t even has superpowers, his is just an incredibly driven, superlatively trained warrior who occupies the gray area in between the good and evil of society. Aside from some more intimate and provoking undertones that go on within The Punishers own conscious, his main method of entertaining comic books fans was plowing his way as violently as possible through droves of street thugs, gangsters, and criminals. It’s at about this time your probably recognizing how male orientated this comic series was. It seems like every male action junkies fantasy, to be this near suicidal, empty shell of a man who can just kill with absolute impunity. Yet, in a strange twist, it took a woman to get this story right.
Director Lexi Alexanders’ command of the visual style and pacing of this movie is probably the most immediate and impressive of the taunting hurdles she had to overcome to create such an exceptionally accurate representation of The Punisher as it is presented in the comics. The Punisher is a man of action, a man of finality, in his world there are three colors, Black (evil), White (good), and Red (Blood and Justice). Lexi encapsulates that beautifully, knowing exactly when to allow the story play out a bit, and maybe let the characters get a little introspective, and when to crank it up to 11 by unleashing the Punisher without any hesitation or restriction. Combining those strengths, with a keen eye for lighting, to give everything that grimy, almost mafia look, and some dynamite performances and well thought out actions set pieces and you have a recipe for success.
But while Lexi may have created quite the landscape for a vigilante superhero with an uncanny talent for dealing death, it would be nothing if there weren’t solid actors to bring the persona’s off the pages of the comics. Everyone, let me introduce to Ray Stevenson. This guy is a presence on screen, I liken him to Gerald Butler, who completely stole the show in every scene he was in in 300. His somber and weathered face and flat voice was a perfect fit for bringing to life the near emotionless Frank Castle. He wasn’t just a revelation because he accurately portrayed a comic book character, he was a revelation because he acted his fucking ass off, and bridged the gap between inflated, comically quirky superheroes, and three-dimensional characters who seem to live and breath in an incredibly believable manner.
Surrounding him is a ensemble cast that includes Julie Benz (RAMBO, Dexter TV show), Dominic West (The Wire TV show), and Wayne Knight (Seinfeld and Jurassic Park). They all fit the bill perfectly, and bring the kind of subtle, validating emotions to the screen, while still being incredibly fun to marvel (pun intended) at due to their fan service nature and faithful reproduction on screen.
Technically speaking, the audio is superb, with the score being allowed to creep into the forefront at just the right moments to give more emotional resonance and weight to a particular scene. Also, every gunshot, shell casing, bullet wound, lost limb, and blown up body is accounted for, with satisfyingly loud, deep, and visceral sound effects. As previously mentioned, the lighting is a perfect blend of realistic city environments, and heavily stylized colorful comic book cities. The camera also always seems to be in the right place, never wearing out its welcome by using too many gimmicks or by sitting around like a seemingly uninterested bystander. It moves with the pace of the action, and always gives a great glimpse of what is happening.
The Punisher, is my humble opinion, is better than the Hulk movie, and right up there with Iron Man as far as 2008 comic book movies are concerned, with the The Dark Knight being the obvious number 1. This is an incredibly faithful, stunningly grisly, and frighteningly accurate depiction of everything that is great about the character Marvel fans seem to forget about the most in The Punisher. The acting is simply spot on, only once or twice spilling into hammy territory. The look and feel is wonderful without being overbearing. It sounds like a dream John Woo had, and it moves quickly, avoiding all those slippery little chasms where character exposition and plot development can lead to mind-numbing boredom and frustration.
The birth of the alternative comic book movie is upon us, and I for one am eagerly awaiting whats next.