Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Punisher's tragic triumph

Here's my short review of the new Punisher movie, which I saw tonight.

On one hand, "The Punisher: War Zone" is as crass a shoot-'em-up as you'll ever see, with grotesque violence and appalling bloodshed. Ray Stevenson absolutely looks the part of the comic-book anti-hero, and the movie is relentless with action. The Punisher's cold precision and deadly grace with his weapons are showcased without apology. The violence is ugly. Frank Castle knows it's ugly but he faces it, and the film doesn't turn away from it either.

On the other hand, opposite from the heavy-handed carnage, Stevenson gives a subtle and compelling performance as Frank Castle. The Punisher is a commando with a broken heart and an iron will. He lives a nightmare existence of grief and despair and anger. He doesn't revel in his revenge. He does the job that he feels God has failed to do by punishing evildoers. He knows the blood on his hands condemns him, but he accepts it as the price he must pay to get the job done.

The Punisher is perhaps the most realistic of Marvel's "superheroes," because he has no super power. You may even view the character as a metaphor for the United States, like Viggo Mortensen's character in "A History of Violence." He detests violence, but he's terribly good at it despite himself, when he's pushed to it. It also reminds me of Clint Eastwood's character in "Unforgiven," who is a terrible, clumsy farmer, but as a killer he's as graceful as the angel of death.

This film is not going to be widely embraced like a Spider-Man or Hulk or Iron Man movie, because of the horrific violence (although if the camera in those movies were pointed at the recipients of the heroes' violence, they'd look this awful, too). It's the nature of The Punisher's story, because it's so dark.

For people who might be inclined to read a Punisher comic, "The Punisher: War Zone" is awesome. Ray Stevenson makes the character real. Frank Castle is a tragic hero is scorns himself, even as others admire him.

I've been a fan of Stevenson since he played the quiet, ax-wielding knight Dagonet in "King Arthur" who broke the ice on the lake and sent the Vikings for a swim. I became an even bigger fan of his with the HBO series "Rome," in which he played Roman soldier Titus Pullo, one of the main characters.

Won't it be interesting if Marvel movies become the venue for a "Rome" reunion? With Stevenson playing The Punisher, rumors are circulating again that "Rome" co-star Kevin McKidd may play Thor. For my money (which will be spent on tickets, DVDs and collectibles), that would be fantastic. I'll be one happy geek.

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