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Why you might want to consider watching Punisher: War Zone.

It's gotten terrible reviews. It can't be good. Ignoring the whole comicbook thing, its pedigree is questionable, at best. Yes, yes, I know. Just like the Punisher cannot be good in comparison to other heroes, it seems Punisher movies cannot be good in comparison to other action or comicbook flicks. Even when I was a kid, the Dolf Lundgren Punisher was laughably bad, but not so much that it was really worth seeing. The series reboot, starring Thomas Jane, seemed so uninteresting, I didn't even consider watching it.

Just like the Punisher cannot be good in comparison to other heroes, it seems Punisher movies cannot be good in comparison to other action or comicbook flicks. Rebooted and recast, again, this time with Titus Pullo--known to those who haven't watched Rome as 'Ray Stevenson'--in the lead role, would the Punisher fare any better this time around?

I decided to find out last week. It was Tuesday night at 7PM, so even though I was at the only screen showing the movie in all of Seattle, I wasn't really surprised my brother and I were the only ones there. Especially considering its critical reception.

The Punisher originated as a side character for Spiderman and Daredevil types, a vigilante with similar aims but who takes things one step too far. He causes our heroes to reassess their approach, making the lead character look that much stronger of a moral figure upon rejecting the Punisher's methods. He functions well in this role, but not as a lead, where his only real appeal is being relentless and too well armed. Previous directors may not have realized they were drinking from a poisoned well in partaking of the Punisher coolaid.

Lexi Alexander, PWZ's director, seems to have understood this, and found it freeing. No, you cannot make a decent Punisher film, but you can make it violent and ludicrous. And, as George Romero has shown, knowing you are making something ridiculous allows you to focus on other things, like social commentary. PWZ hits on that, humorously indicting our culture for its cyclical reliance upon violence, and our government for its ineffectiveness, easy corruptibility--for justice, of course--and its recruitment tactics. It does this in clear moments of parody, and even works in some relatively subtle satire.

Critics (even those who enjoyed PWZ) seem to have missed this altogether. Instead, they focus largely on the awesome, over-the-top, a guy-gets-hit-mid-jump-with-a-rocket action, and take it far too seriously. They complain that the film is mindless, and then moan that it expects us to take it seriously (which makes me wonder if they even watched the movie).

Few seem to appreciate Ray Stevenson's portrayal of Frank Castle, the titular man who punishes, which is a shame. Stevenson is badass, and brings a menacing, tank-like presence to the screen; but he is also a fine actor. He does everything he can to give the flat character he is tasked with a 'soul'--and, really, the Punisher's never been anything but two dimensional. Stevenson doesn't have many lines, and most of those are merely necessary. When he's not smashing things in spectacular fashion, he does most of his acting with his eyes. About all the Punisher ever feels is remorse, saddened nostalgia, hardened determination, and brief moments of grim satisfaction, which isn't enough really, but Stevenson valiantly tries to humanize his character in the slower moments.

Like Stevenson's acting, the movie's brains are underrated. This modest success is not necessary, however, because Punisher: War Zone isn't the sort of project that admits to success. It is, however, the sort of thing fans of hyper-violence, ridiculous action, and enjoyably bad films will love. This should become a cult favourite.

Before watching it, just remember: It's gotten terrible reviews. It can't be good.


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