Meant to get to this a couple months ago, but better late than never. With that Daredevil “Punisher arc” raving up a storm, I thought a review of a real dust-kicker was in order.
With its headstrong rush of momentary action and aestheticized body dismemberment and its essential disinterest in anything else, Punisher: War Zone is pornographic in a figurative sense, narratively disfigured but never once disarmed. Dedicated primarily – singularly in fact – to its basest impulses, War Zone rudimentarily hurtles its way to and from its violent phrases with narrative and character serving as mere conjunctions rather than proper clauses (as they do in even most action films which are unable to untether themselves from the itch to throw a woebegone story into a none-the-wiser film that doesn’t need it). It’s garish, grotesque, and, in its own way, disarmingly unmanicured and liberating in its refusal to dress up its essentially atrocious self in highfalutin airs. Like a pompadour, War Zone is a delightfully unworried, confrontational slice of deliberate style as willfully oblivious to social propriety as it is delectably well-taken-care-of by its wielders.
Blithely subsumed in an underworld of noxious violence, Lexi Alexander’s film exists in a fugue state of hedonistic violence that trounces on the memories of the vapid 1989 Dolph Lundgren feature and 2004’s trivializing Thomas Jane vehicle about the same character. It’s disgusting, by all means, but the gusto with which it careens headfirst into its violence rather than halfheartedly gesturing toward its brakes and swerving sideways into it is refreshing in an era of puritanical America’s embarrassing attitude toward the very violence it doles out. Most American action films can pretend to dish it, but they can’t admit it.
Realizing that this fearful attitude most films take toward their violence-fetishization amounts to a self-loathing about admitting their true colors to audiences, War Zone is many things, but timid is not among them. Carnal and almost semi-comic in its willingness to dare against the laws of physics and common sense, War Zone is a near-cartoon symphony in self-propagating fire-and-brimstone silliness that doesn’t really care whether you like it or not. It’s inconsequential but diffident to no one else but itself; impeccably shot and colored with faded, frightening primary colors, it’s got a giallo’s heart, the mind of a monomaniacally pure, torrid adolescent, and a twelve-gauge for a pancreas. War Zone is bereft of the Marvel Studios’ consistent need for self-legitimization. While something like Captain America: Civil War constantly insists upon itself with a festering need to thrive and to mean something, War Zone simply is.
And it is in a manner that is rather effective, as a matter of fact. With a remarkable, almost bracing, self-confidence in its restrictive, ascetic narrative economy, War Zone warps malnourishment into a sort of laser-focused ambition; this is a film that is set to kill and unapologetic about it, totally uninterested in cosmopolitan ambitions trampling on its depraved grotto. With a glut of non-committal films in recent years covering up their vigilantism or suffusing it in a layer of anemic, halfhearted self-critique that only hides the violence upon which they are built (see any of the Chris Nolan Batman films), the extent to which War Zone simply doesn’t care is semi-exciting. Ruthlessly excoriating narrative as a useless vestigial structure, the Punisher, in this film, simply punishes, and Billy/Jigsaw (Dominic West) is his current bête noire. That the film succeeds, however moderately, is testament to its understanding that it needs nothing else.
Played by Ray Stevenson, this less-conflicted Batman is a sickly, jaundiced man whose emptiness is intimated in his physicality rather than a screenplay that bends over backwards to psychologize the Punisher; his vacancy is suggested in his malarial appearance, his weary visage, rather than demonstratively proclaimed by the narrative. The lurking nature of the emptiness that stabs you in the back rather than pouncing on you in the front only allows the film to descend into a nastier plane of post-traumatic hell.
The barbaric screenplay doesn’t exactly carve out room for wit, but its obviousness is as much a gregarious benefit as a disaster, especially where the thick, sweltering gallows comedy is concerned. Jigsaw, a fount of playful insouciance curdled into gravid terror, plays like a nasty-minded satire of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, while a trio of parkour-loving practitioners swirl around the film arbitrarily and with a slippery abandon that is undone by Stevenson’s merciless solitude in a pretty funny, if not exactly Ozu-esque, defense of stillness over movement.
That doesn’t excuse it or elevate it, mind you. As a film, it’s frankly terrible as far as the niceties of ambition are concerned; there is but one thing on its amoral mind, and the cathartic nature with which it achieves that goal belies its condemnation-worthy status in any other terms. That it is relatively self-determining, smitten with its own impulses, free of inhibition, and nullified of other guises doesn’t fully negate how this all-out frenzy of action is itself a guise for the casualties of character and depth. But flawed though it undoubtedly is, compared to the mostly bland Marvel films and the cloyingly neutral, personality-deficient Daredevil depiction of the Punisher, there’s a spiked-bourbon, salt-on-the-wound burn to War Zone’s no-ambitions frills that hits hard, even when the film doesn’t.