Schlock Art is where truly tasteless, gleefully grotesque and insanely inventive works of genre cinema are celebrated with unironic fervor. Every other week, we highlight a title available for streaming you may have overlooked. This week, we wade through Lexi Alexander’s viscera-soaked take on a beloved Marvel antihero with Punisher: War Zone.
Available for streaming on Showtime and Amazon Prime
Take a look at what’s playing in theaters right now. Is there, perhaps, a superhero film playing near you? You have the summer of 2008 to thank for that. With the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, that summer remains a defining moment in modern blockbuster filmmaking and ensured studios would spend at least the next 10 years clamoring for that sweet, superhero cash.
Yet, there’s another comic-book film that came and went later in that year’s dead of winter without any fanfare or commercial impact. That film, of course, is the shamefully underseen Punisher: War Zone, and it holds just as special a place in my geek heart.
Residing somewhere between the neon-lit gunplay of John Wick and the pus-filled nightmare of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Punisher: War Zone is likely one of the most violent action films ever released by a major studio. As the third (and, to date, last) shot at a Punisher movie — after 2004’s watchable Thomas Jane vehicle — it’s the kind of superhero film we rarely see these days: unrepentantly bizarre and smacking of a distinct creative vision. Like Ang Lee’s Hulk or Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, it’s a comic book adaptation whose glaring flaws can be forgiven if you can stand back and admire its singularity.
The plot is barely worth going into, as the charms to be found here have virtually nothing to do with narrative and everything to do with the sadistic set pieces staged by female (!!!) director Lexi Alexander.
Wisely sidestepping an origin story, we meet Frank Castle already several years into his murderous crime-fighting career and any personality he may have had has vanished. Ray Stevenson’s portrayal of the famed vigilante feels less like a fleshed-out human character than a monolith of brooding psychopathy. The actor’s weathered and perpetually mourning visage makes for a striking Punisher ripped straight from Garth Ennis’s acclaimed take on the character (a comics run from which this film primarily draws its inspiration). The character has an unceasing drive to exterminate as many criminals as humanly possible, and the film gives him almost zero motivation outside of that.
Punisher: War Zone plays out like a series of increasingly inventive, brain-splattered sequences in which our expressionless antihero massacres his way through a series of enemies that range from entirely generic to delightfully idiosyncratic. It’s these touches of the bizarre where its strengths lie. From the stark, neon lighting to the revolting design of villain Jigsaw, the aesthetics are stylized as hell. This thing looks like a comic book in the best possible way. In the era of hack storyteller Zack Snyder, this is nothing new, but the mix of otherworldly lighting and Grand Guignol gore works with astonishing synchronicity.
As for the ol’ ultraviolence one would expect from a Punisher film, the action scenes deliver with innards-filled buckets. Grand Guignol is not hyperbole; people are absolutely eviscerated in this film. Whether it’s an elderly woman’s head being turned into a Pollock painting or the Punisher swiftly kicking the leg of a chair through another man’s eye, you’ll see methods of bad-guy disposal in ways hitherto unseen in the comics-on-film genre. It’s a precarious balance of gruesome extremes and gallows humor, but Punisher: War Zone never deviates from its effectively peculiar tone.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Punisher: War Zone is a grade-A cut of prime schlock. It isn’t some unseen masterpiece. There’s a reason why, nearly 10 years later, people are still talking about The Dark Knight as an insurmountable specimen of the superhero genre, while almost no one has seen this reboot. Unfortunately, as a theatrically released motion picture, it occasionally feels the need to slow down for clumsy attempts at pathos and narrative cohesion. The acting and dialogue here are frankly atrocious. I’m not sure who thought the subtle bit in which a grieving widow yells, “Who punishes you?” at Castle was particularly revelatory, but it must have sounded much better on paper. Even Stevenson, who makes a fine homicidal vigilante, struggles when stuck with what is across-the-board rough dialogue. Part of me almost wishes this were a silent film.
This Friday, audiences will see the latest stab at a standalone Punisher adaptation in the form of a Marvel/Netflix series. Marvel’s efforts to establish their own mini-verse via Netflix have ranged from consistently engaging to aggressively dull, but I have a feeling that their latest won’t reach the horrific and absurd heights of Alexander’s film.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (on both the big and small screen) has been dutiful in the translation of its characters, we’re reaching the point where these movies feel more and more like products. Warts and all, Punisher: War Zone harkens back to an era nearly gone now, not even 10 years on — where filmmakers had total freedom in how they chose to bring a comics icon to the screen.