Saturday, January 23, 2016

Not Ladylike – Punisher: War Zone

I'm not a big believer in the concept of masculine and feminine traits, that men and women inherently behave differently.  Once you get past the physical differences, the behavioral differences are more from the thousands of years of social conditioning.  There aren’t hard and fast rules.  I’ve known some big, scary looking men who were complete softies, and quite a few women without a nurturing bone in their bodies.  It’s not that men and women aren’t different, it’s that everyone is different.  Societal expectations guide us, but we are all capable of going our own way and being successful. 

The clearest evidence of this, in my opinion, is that female directors can make completely kick ass action movies.   There are plenty of examples, one being an Oscar award winner, but today we'll go with one of the most ass kicking; Lexi Alexander, director of PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. 

The Capsule:

A witness-killing crime boss celebrates his latest court victory with a lavish dinner party for his family and mob buddies.  The party ends suddenly when walking tank Frank “The Punisher” Castle takes the boss’ head off and slaughters everyone else at the dinner table.  The boss’ slimeball nephew, Billy, escapes the scene, but Castle catches up with him later and sends him swimming in a recycled glass grinder.  He also unknowingly shoots an undercover cop posing as one of Billy’s toadies.  Guilt and flashbacks of his own murdered family lead him to protect the cop’s wife and little girl from Billy, who survived the glass bath and is now a Frankengangster called Jigsaw.  The dead cop’s ex-partner is looking to arrest Castle, but they begrudgingly team up, sort of, when Jigsaw kidnaps the wife and little girl. To get them back, Castle must fight his way through a dilapidated hotel filled with an army of street goons and Jigsaw’s even crazier brother, Looney Bin Jim (or LBJ).  Yes, there will be blood.  And exploding heads.

This is my favorite of the three completely separate Punisher movies, mostly because of the lead, Ray Stevenson.  The huge actor radiates destructive menace as well as any horror villain.  In this movie, he is like a bull in a china shop, except with people instead of china.  He doesn’t just punch a guy in the face, he punches him through his face.  That in itself would be fine, but Stevenson has a secret weapon, he is also a fantastic actor.  He has a Shakespearean depth of emotion and thoughtfulness, juxtaposed against his scary appearance.  He elevates any role he’s cast in.  Even his scummy henchman character from BOOK OF ELI is more quietly reflective than you would expect.  Stevenson plays Castle as a man hollowed out by grief, long after the fire of revenge was quenched.  Exterminating criminals seems like less of a mission for him and more of a protracted suicide.  He knows how it will end for him.  Protecting the mom and the little girl rekindles a bit of life into his shell. He once again has something worth fighting for.  Stevenson conveys this mostly through his eyes.

The movie has a few of those kind of weird moments I love.  When Castle tries to leave mea culpa money with the family of the undercover cop, the mom (Julie Benz) tells him to “step the fuck away from my daughter.”  The girl gasps and says, “Mom, that's a dad word.”  Not a bad word, but a dad word, like only her dad was allowed to say “fuck”.  They also play against type by having Newman from SEINFELD playing Microchip, Castle’s sad sack gun supplier who spends his days looking after his elderly, mentally vacant mother.   It’s like he’s paying penance for being such a dick in JURASSIC PARK.

As grim as the story is, it also has a wide streak of dark humor.  The violence is so over the top that it is clearly done tongue in cheek.  Almost every death is an overkill, to ridiculous proportions.  When Castle is faced with an acrobatic, parkour using hoodlum, he just shoots him with a heat seeking missile.  Some bad guys actually get double deaths, killed in two separate, increasingly brutal ways.  It’s impossible to take seriously. 

Despite all the blood and guts and brain chunks, the movie still has a distinct comic book feel (it is part of the Marvel Knights series, after all).  The lighting, colors, and set design are subtly stylized, just slightly off from the real world.  It has one of my favorite gags, when bizarre or dangerous situations are completely ignored by normal people.  At several points, Castle walks the streets in full battle gear and no one reacts with any interest.  “Hey, gun toting psycho, who made you king of the sidewalk?  I’m trying to get to the deli.”

Dominic West plays Jigsaw a little too cartoony for my tastes.  With his goomba accent, he was a bit much even before his accident.  Once he gets a Picasso face, he really goes overboard.  It cancels out the menace.  Doug Hutchison does better as his brother, Looney Bin Jim.  He has this jackrabbit fighting style that makes him seem more dangerous than his diminutive frame would suggest.  He and Castle’s big, bathroom demolishing fight at the end of the movie is pretty spectacular.

The action and mayhem comes to you courtesy of director and noted woman, Lexi Alexander.  I only realized the movie had a female director after watching the DVD extras. It never dawned on me during my first viewing.  Alexander is a former world karate and kickboxing champion and still practices martial arts, so she knows her way around a fight scene.  There is nothing stereotypically “female” about the movie.  Stevenson has his sensitive, even vulnerable, moments, but so did Bruce Willis in DIE HARD.  It’s the sign of a good character, not the gender of the director.  Alexander was completely capable of making a balls-out action movie, no literal balls necessary.
Alexander is perhaps more known for being a vocal supporter of diversity in the world of filmmaking (and the world in general), and writing several articles and emails criticizing Hollywood for its shocking under use of female directors.  She hasn’t followed up WAR ZONE with another big action movie like I hoped, but she has recently directed an episode of ARROW and SUPERGIRL, so she’s still in the game.  This is a good thing, because the world needs more kick ass movies, and kick ass women to direct them.  

C Chaka

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