Whatever Happened to Frank Castle

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

    Punisher: War Zone Directed by Lexi Alexander Running Time: 103 min.

    There’s a line in Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone where Frank Castle, aka The Punisher (Ray Stevenson), grouses to a priest, “Sometimes, I wish I could get my hands on God.” 

    “Is that supposed to be funny?” a woman to my right asked amidst the boisterous laughter the line caused. I wanted to say “no,” but then realized that’s not entirely true. The character is supposed to be both serious and funny because he’s so brutal. He’s neither, however, because Alexander and the film’s three screenwriters—Matt Holloway, Art Marcum and Nick Santora—can’t decide how to portray The Punisher. Is he a complex, tragic figure or a darkly comic anti-hero?

    Refusing to choose between the two is what earns Alexander’s version of the character its title. War Zone is the third film featuring Frank Castle and the second reboot after 2004’s bloated and uninspired revival. So by now, you’d think someone would know how to properly handle the comic-book equivalent of Paul Kersey, the revenge-obsessed vigilante protagonist in the Death Wish series. Alexander has said that she wanted to stay true to comic writer Garth Ennis’ current vision of the character, one where monotonous and utterly unfunny gross-out humor is used for shock value. In doing so, she refuses to address where Frank fits in a comic-book world intended for “mature readers” where gangs—organized around updated ethnic stereotypes—sponsor prostitution rings and terrorists. The latter connection is made in her film but is only a MacGuffin, leaving one to wonder who really needs Frank Castle around anyway.

    If the devil really is in the details, it’s impossible to answer that question by looking at War Zone’s convoluted plot. As we learn through a painfully overlong flashback and explanation from the cheerfully naive Detective Soap (Dash Mihok), Frank Castle has vowed a war on crime after his family is murdered right in front of him. He tries to kill Billy Russoti (Dominic West), an up-and-coming goombah that sells WMDs to “ragheads”; a horribly disfigured Russoti survives, however, to becomes “Jigsaw” and then vows to kill Frank—and get paid at the same time. Castle’s actions attract the attention of federal agent Budiansky (Colin Salmon), who wants Frank brought in because he killed his partner, an undercover agent, leaving behind a grieving widow and young daughter.

    Here’s where things start to get inconsistent: Frank wants to die because he killed a “good guy,” but he only gets pulled back into the game once his victim’s family and his partner, Micro (Wayne Knight), are kidnapped. This core of Frank’s character, the desire to protect his buddies and the families of “good” people, is left unchallenged. At the same time, we’re expected to buy that killing thugs is OK because, otherwise, the revolving- door system of justice will prevail and so will the terrorists they do business with. In reiterating Ennis’ comic version of Frank Castle, Alexander insists that people don’t change, no matter how much detention they get. Soap may think otherwise by treating Frank with kid gloves. Murderers are murderers, and they must be punished; but to do so, Frank has to lower himself to their standards. Deep, right?

    It’s hard to know whether to roll your eyes with (or at) this new version of Frank because either his world is too flat for its own good or he is. The bad guys he faces are a bunch of vain lunatics that hide behind guns, money and lawyers; but he’s not much better. No, this Frank is a man that knows he’s right and only doubts himself when he kills a cop and a daddy. Rather than focus on Frank as a man of action, as the cheesy 1980s film version of the character did, War Zone digs into the character’s complexity with hopes that it can crib from the on-again/(but mostly) off-again success of Ennis’ version of the character.

    Unfortunately, being grotesque does not mean you’re being funny, shocking or sympathetic. Maybe the fourth time around Frank Castle will be more about action and less about commentary. Then again, as a reluctant fan of the character, I really hope he doesn’t make it that far.