PUNISHER: WAR ZONE & THE SAD STATE OF THE CINEMATIC SHIT-KICKER.
So I was one of those strange people who watched Punisher: War Zone during its brief theatrical run. If you’re a fan of left-field action flicks and intentional unintentional humor, I’ll tell you it’s definitely worth that late-night rental. If you like to get drunk, get drunk. If you like to get high, get high. If you’re like me and you’re a screwy enough personality even without adding any chemical influence, you’ll absolutely get a chuckle out of the thing.
It’s total junk, but you know what? Maybe most times you like to eat healthy. But sometimes you somehow end up at McDonald’s. And on occasion, while you’re there, you might even feel dumb enough to try the Fillet O’ Fish.
Punisher: War Zone is the McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish sandwich of action movies – if you’re brave enough to try it, it’s a very temporary very positive experience which you will probably regret doing and probably not admit to having done.
No one will ever persuade me that even a moment of the previous two Punisher movies (in 1989 and 2004) were remotely watchable, and I’ve never been much of a fan of the character. But the Garth Ennis Punisher stories are some of the few comics I have kept up with regularly for the last several years. I’m not talking about the first few stories he did with Preacher collaborator Steve Dillon – those were over-the-top black comedy that’s not to my tastes. The previous Punisher movie, the Thomas Jane one, went to that well, and “well” is not how that approach turned out. No, instead I’m recommending (highly) the bleak, black-hearted stories Ennis has written more recently, including The Slavers, Barracuda, and The Long Cold Dark, in which the cold-blooded vigilante is pitted against enemies even crueler than he is. It’s the only approach that makes much sense. You have to go with the vicarious impulse.
So I don’t actually agree with the notion that The Punisher is too one-note a character to hang a movie upon. Film franchises such as Death Wish and Friday The 13th managed to do very well for themselves with a one-note, mono-maniacal mass-murderer as the protagonist. And in War Zone, the story actually starts with at least two relatively interesting concepts which could make The Punisher an interesting feature-film prospect. One, he accidentally kills one of the good guys; two, he’s put in conflict with a cop who has a more traditional right on his side.
The movie just happens to bury that promising story framework in a sloppy, overacted, underlined, frequently hilarious comedy. War Zone is unstructured, aggressively miscast, and lit like a caricature of a 1985 Michael Mann film. (Neon is everywhere – I especially liked the shot of a character sitting on a stool in front of a shelf of assorted liquor: cut to a wider shot featuring a lime-green neon sign proclaiming “BAR.”)
Maybe Garth Ennis himself could have written up a dark, interesting Punisher movie, but that won’t ever happen. At this point, another Punisher movie is probably out of the question entirely.
Especially not after you see the performances of the movie’s lead villains, Dominic West as Jigsaw and Doug Hutchison as L.B.J. These guys are starring in a campy, incestuous John Waters comedy, playing homicidal psychopathic brothers with insanely ridiculous accents. Somebody went and mixed the Punisher into their weird-ass movie, instead of the other way around.
On the subject of that Punisher – the one place where Punisher: War Zone isn’t totally miscast is with Ray Stevenson. I first noticed Ray Stevenson in King Arthur, which was not a great movie but it was stocked with great badasses such as Clive Owen and Ray Winstone. If you know Ray Stevenson at all, you know him from Rome, the HBO series in which, among other things, he pulls out some dude’s tongue with his teeth.
I don’t know if Ray Stevenson makes a great Punisher, exactly – he probably projects too much depth for that – but he is quite skilled in the bad-ass arts. He’s convincing as a shit-kicker in a way that very few actors are, especially these days. I wish to hell somebody would give Ray Stevenson a different movie in which to practice shit-kicking, because he’s so very good at it.
Which brings me to a deeper point…
While I was watching Punisher: War Zone, I started thinking about how rare that badass action movies about the great shit-kickers have become. Shitkickers used to be so popular; not so much anymore. Where are the big, ugly, mean mother fuckers?
Where’s Charles Bronson, who was always so many more shades of tough than people give him credit from just the Death Wish films?
Where’s today’s equivalent of James Coburn? Lanky, toothy, fierce, unfukwitable?
Would there be room today for a wonderfully unique, growly, and two-fisted actor like Warren Oates?
Do we have anyone on the 2008 landscape who could play the kind of roles that men like William Holden, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, Toshiro Mifune, or Steve McQueen routinely played?
Could my beloved hero Clint Eastwood have his amazing, legendary career if he were to start out today?
It used to be that movies had a place for men, real men – men acting mean for the sake of good. They were convincing as tough guys and they gave our dads and grandpas the metaphorical instruction manual as to how to behave. Looks were secondary, tertiary, or lower still, as qualifications for cinematic supremacy – physical beauty had little or nothing to do with the careers of John Wayne, most likely the most popular and famous American movie star of all time, or of Humphrey Bogart, one of the best remembered.
So I gotta be a little concerned about the state of American masculinity when the most popular action-movie character of the last ten years is…
Captain Jack Sparrow.
Johnny Depp is great, but while he’s admirably tried to fight it, he’s ultimately, unavoidably, a pretty-boy. And in the Pirates movies, he’s an action hero with makeup.
Dude’s got makeup on, and HE’S the ruler of all the pirates? Tyrone Power was a pretty-boy too, but he went easier on the makeup at least. But these are the pirate movies our generation gets. Babyfaces for babies. I actually like Orlando Bloom, but he’s in those movies to make Jack Sparrow look butch. You see my point?
The next most popular lead in action movies? Probably it’s Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Now, I’m a big Tobey fan, despite and/or because of the universally agreed-upon fact that he resembles me pretty much exactly. (On a good day, I also get the Jake Gyllenhaal comparison, but that works even more damningly towards my point. Gyllenhaal is twice the romantic, sensitive poet type that Maguire is.) While Sam Raimi is all the more a genius for casting my doppelganger as the greatest comic book hero who isn’t Batman, I still have an issue with this, weirdly enough. I’m not sure that our action heroes should necessarily resemble me – at least, not as a rule, rather than the exception. Our action heroes should look like they FLOSS with runts like me.
The guys who should be in that spot haven’t broke through to action in the way I’m describing.
Clive Owen has not exactly been able to hit as an action star the way he should be.
Russell Crowe was holding it down for a minute there, but he rushed off into serious-actor territory and never really returned.
Bruce Willis was great at it, but he seems not to be doing it [in watchable movies] anymore.
Sam Jackson is brilliant at it, but he works so often that it’s not special anymore.
Keanu Reeves and Matt Damon were very solid in the Matrix and Bourne films, but remember, they were cast against type.
Denzel can do it, but he’s got so many other vivid facets to work at, and all of them are squarely in leading man territory – he’s more a Robert Mitchum than an Ernest Borgnine.
Daniel Day-Lewis can do it (Gangs of New York) but usually refuses to.
I could see Mickey Rourke getting it done, but the proper system isn’t in place.
Remember, I’m not maligning any of these actors – I don’t think I’ve mentioned a one that I don’t think is legitimately great. I’m merely talking about a genre that seems to have disappeared off the big screen, a joyfully malevolent genre where pretty faces exist only to get pushed in.
In action, real down-and-dirty shit-kicking action flicks, generally the actors who we think of today strictly as character actors should actually be the kings.
Casting Daniel Craig as Bond was a great step, in my opinion. He was kicked up from villainous supporting roles, in movies like Road To Perdition, to the big time. I know the ladies find Daniel Craig dreamy, but I like him because he looks like he’s actually been in some fights; maybe there’s even a busted nose somewhere in his hazy past. I’m not particularly a Bond fan, and those fancy spy extravanganzas aren’t the kind of movies I’m talking about, but I like that he’s out there in big movies.
But outside of all of the above – really, what else is out there?
I like The Rock in movies, but he’s not the answer we need. He’s a little too metro, and definitely too funny.
I like Mark Wahlberg too, a whole lot, but as an actor way more than an action guy – I’ll never be able to forget “Good Vibrations” no matter how good the guy was in Boogie Nights and Three Kings.
Jason Statham is decent at what he does, but there’s nothing quintessentially American about that guy – he’d ideally be the fourth down the line in a badass ensemble, not the headliner. Besides, he used to be a male model. Dismissed.
Hayden Christensen keeps getting action roles, but come on now, seriously.
Hugh Jackman has a little Clint in his look, but also a whole lot of musical theater.
That kid in the Twilight movie is inevitably going to get his shot in an action flick now, but he looks like Kate Winslet to me.
We’re THIS close to a Justin Timberlake action movie. That’s all I’m warning against.
And if that happens, I guarantee Lee Marvin is going to be royally pissed.
You know, the world is upside down. You’d have to vacate movies almost entirely and go all the way to television in order to see the character actor running rampant in his badassed primacy. You’d have to watch The Sopranos. The Shield. Rescue Me. The Wire. Oz. The characters on Lost who used to star on Oz. And of course, Rome.
All of which brings us back to Ray Stevenson. He’s part of the solution. But he can’t do it alone.
Consider all of the above to be an S.O.S.
This essay was originally posted in December in 2008. Since then, the most dire prophecy contained within it has come to pass. The situation has not much improved. “It gets better,” my ass.
Doesn’t look happy.