I was one of the few people — judging by its box office performance — who went to see Punisher: War Zone this weekend. I went, primarily, because I like seeing things blow up. (On screen. Important distinction there, Mr. Parole Officer.) But I was also curious to see if, indeed, the third time was the charm. Because I can’t quite understand why, of all the characters in the pop-culture firmament, Frank Castle — better known as the Punisher — is worth so many attempts at getting right. (And, ironically, of all the movie Punishers — Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and the new model, Ray Stevenson, all pictured — Dolph’s movie is the best.)
It’s not like the Punisher is James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, or even Tarzan…he’s just a dude who kills criminals while wearing a skull on his chest. I get why he works in the comics — in a medium where, more often than not, the “hero” doesn’t actually kill the bad guy, the Punisher is a change of pace. He keeps the morgue as busy as Batman keeps Arkham Asylum. But to movie audiences, the Punisher is no different than any other vigilante we’ve seen a thousand times before. How do you keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Death Wish?
I can see why they made the 2004 Thomas Jane flick. Flushed with visions of Spider-Man money dancing in their heads, it seemed like a no-brainer. It wasn’t good, not by a long shot, but I get it. Punisher: War Zone is the big mystery: Why make it, unless you’re going to make it, you know, better? And in case you’re wonder how War Zone might have been better — and not the cheeseball flick it was — here are three easy steps:
1) Remember, the Punisher is a crazy man. There is no straight line between one’s family getting gunned down by mobsters and becoming a monomaniacal killing machine. Frank Castle is mentally ill. Treat him as such. Go watch Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer. That’s how you do it.
2) Leave some cliches unturned. Between the marinara-stained Italian mob, the cap-popping gangbangers, the vodka-swilling Russians, the Doc Martened Irish punks, and the fu manchu’d Asians, everyone on-screen conspired to make a joke of everything that transpired. Thereby sapping it of any dramatic tension. Or realism.
3) The Punisher’s story should not be one of redemption. He is a monster on a never-ending mission. He should not be rehabilitated. He should never been seen almost crying while looking at someone else’s daughter. And he should never be on the verge of hanging up his guns. He’s the shark in Jaws. He’s the Terminator. He’s a man who voluntarily gave up his humanity. Period. Granted, that makes for a difficult protagonist. But you treat the Punisher the way Christopher Nolan treated the Joker — as a force of nature, with no whys to explain his actions. And you still get to blow up lots of stuff.