In truth, I can't mount a very spirited defense of the film. I liked it all right, but I left feeling disappointed – something bound to happen after the orgasmic reactions from my esteemed colleagues all over the Internet. I went in expecting to be blown away by B-level madness, but instead felt kind of bored in the talky middle. I don't want to say something like "Leave the dialogue out of a Punisher movie!" because I'm not that shallow. Plus, Castle is a character with gravitas, he has to have some strong and silent moments. I just felt the film veered a little too wildly between camp and solemnity ... and I can't even say which of the two I wish War Zone should have been.
I can let most of my criticisms slide as petty, though -- my main complaint is that there just wasn't enough of the Punisher. I thought that Ray Stevenson was fantastic as Frank Castle, which is probably predictable given the way I heaped praise on the casting choice whenever I could. But he was perfect, putting it all in the eyes and weary posture, a stoic center to a lot of freaky moments.
Stevenson is not going to get the props he deserves from the mainstream press because it was such an understated (and arguably underused) performance. It actually felt like he was relegated to a side character who was talked about more than he was seen, which is the wrong place for a title hero. Again, this may be a matter of personal perception, but I am pretty sure that Jigsaw got more screen time than the title hero. Then again, I can hardly blame them for letting Dominic West run wild -- he looked as though he was having the time of his life. What scarred, infectious enthusiasm! Who am I to deny him a single minute?
Despite being left vaguely unsatisfied, I really don't want Punisher: War Zone to be a one shot deal. There was an awful lot I liked about it. As origin stories go, it was perfect, the lines deftly colored in without a lot of fuzzy flashbacks and internal anguish. (Those have their place, but come on – the decision to slap on a skull t-shirt and punish the corrupt isn't one to be lingered over.) It captured the twisted talent of Garth Ennis, where you're not sure if you're supposed to laugh or wince – and there should always be more Ennis on the big screen. I loved the neon look, which screamed (literally, his panels are bright) Steve Dillon to me whether it was meant to or not. As silly and disposable as it sounds, my issues with the film could actually be resolved by a sequel. War Zone felt like that first issue of a run, the issue that is a little clunky and uneven to the point that you're not sure whether it's hooked you or not. But you go buy the second anyway, following your gut instinct that it's going to take off.
And War Zone is really at that point for me. Castle's grim declaration (ad-libbed, apparently) "This is just the beginning" can't be left hanging. It's begging to be answered in numerous films of bloodthirsty vengeance as Castle takes on all manner of organized crime and villains. Bring on Barracuda! Bring on the sex trade! There's plenty of good stories for him to take on. And if you think my argument is made solely to see more of Stevenson in a skull shirt / bulletproof vest, you would be only half right. Sure, I want to see Stevenson get another shot at the character, but it's really that action cinema needs a guy like the Punisher. He's the guy who actually fulfills the needs of two audiences – we, the devoted comic readers, and those who are longing for the days of those hard-edged 70s revenge thrillers.
In fact, I have a decent case study for this in my dad (he of the Magnum 45) who absolutely adored the movie. I was pretty surprised by that, as normally he can be heard complaining "not more comic book movies!" I suspect his glowing review was because Frank Castle essentially is Harry Callahan ... if Callahan met the Sopranos, lost his sense of humor, and fell completely off the grid. A lot of people want a return to the days of Death Wish, and since Jason Statham can't be the only one kicking glorious B-movie ass, I say we bring in the Punisher. Castle is so far removed from the traditional Marvel Universe that he can attract the audiences who otherwise avoid all things superheroic. He's the closest thing to Nolan's Batman that Marvel has. It would be a shame to waste him.
(And really Marvel, consider this – upon learning Castle came from your world, my dad immediately asked me where he could get his hands on some Punisher comics. And we're not talking single-issues, he wants the trades. You just earned yourself a new customer! How many more like him are there?)
I'll turn it over to you, my readers, because Christmas is the time for sharing your Punisher thoughts, hopes, and dreams. You know what I want from you. Have at it.