My summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while. That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September. I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got. Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks. Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it. So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film? It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!
The future America is an irradiated waste land. On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets. The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner. Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed. During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation. A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan. When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire. With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.
Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless. Yet, it is not dumb by any means. Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths. We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories. Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film. Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior. However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes. He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law. He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film. His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight. He’s also calm, collected, and confident. He never lashes out. He’s calculated in everything he does. This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal. The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him. For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.” This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.
Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd. I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy. He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far. It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film. Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face. Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle. Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage. It’s reflective of his attitude. He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through. That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset. Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence. He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time. It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes. Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level. This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.
The character of Anderson is really handled greatly. She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film. Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless. The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly. Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments. I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film. Dredd is no exception. Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay. It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way. The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson. She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés. There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly. Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself. It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out. She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.
Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain. She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it. She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree. She isn’t just going to kill you. That’s not enough. She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete! She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie! The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.
The cinematography on this movie is really amazing. What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences. The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning. It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users. Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured. The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start. Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis. The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations. The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences. Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.
The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face! If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible. Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you. He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job. And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well. Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex. It’s wicked awesome! There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly. One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style. Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry. I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.
Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan. He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar. This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you. It flows along with the action and momentum of the film. The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass. It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate. Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.
What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest. This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources. There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film. The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry. And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D. That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D. Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations. Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be. The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story. All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully. There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot. It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.
Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces. It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films. I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places. Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him. This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole. He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all. A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip. It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.
Poor Frank Castle. He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life. It’s just reboot after reboot. However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places. I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it. Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date. Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight. So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part. To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.
Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts. While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli. Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder. However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in. Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.
First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story. They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story. Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot. We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky. We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count. The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher. There are literally thousands of them. This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character. This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge. This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief. That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.
Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme. While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be. It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters. The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times. However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography. It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality. Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion. It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up. It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind. This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.
I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes. It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty. No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies. While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic. This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine. Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent. I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details. It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines. Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty. Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes. This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do. I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose. That’s hardcore right there. Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him. The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could. And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.
Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character. I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise. I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through. Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle. Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal. Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross. If you’re a criminal, you will be punished. There is no gray area. It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time. The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher. It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle. The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family. It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets. He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through. Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul. Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain. Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film. The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors. You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me. The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli. Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian. He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity. It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude. He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.
Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess. Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures. There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance. While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience. I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness. She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together. The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli. Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank. Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.
Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality. Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome. Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly. Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti. He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso. He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain. If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced. However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film. Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime. He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental. There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me. It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies. Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while. His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction. It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.
There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim. It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level. He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax. In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done. Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw. It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.
The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro. Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic. He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine. Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap. I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film. It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear. I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing. On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky. He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what. Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics. There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone. Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes. Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should. It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed. This film succeeds, and in many different ways.
I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it. While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments. It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare. Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness. The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax. This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles. The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own. The action cinematography is excellent. There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing. The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion. That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this. They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy. It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around. Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices. It all works to amazing effect.
And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York. My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance. It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York. So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion. That is something I cannot commend them enough. Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.
Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me. While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film. Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown. Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them. However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher. It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil. It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.
Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script. Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout. Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs. There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky. These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way. Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli. These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully. It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher. Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned. Others consider what he does a service. The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets. This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside. How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.
The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught. It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches. The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal. This is hardcore action all the way through. It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself. Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you. Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.
All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard. I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film. It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance. Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle. He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him. He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander. She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision. So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre. We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high. In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard. The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher. So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie. For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass! The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding. Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice. Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.
I’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release. It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget. It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience. However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller. What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti. The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat. I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.
Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies. While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals. Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence. When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight. He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters. However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway. Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.
An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence. It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature. He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of. The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in. However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere. The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness. What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story. From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.
Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt. It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances. He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise. This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life. The sex and nudity are never raunchy. Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy. We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan. Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous. It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man. However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it. They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous. They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters. Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences. When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick. Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.
Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film. The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing. The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch. It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story. Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene. The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything. It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace. The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script. However, it really didn’t require or demand more. What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film. We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence. The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing. All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly. The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure. I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film. This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline. Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.
Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for. While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work. As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality. He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring. His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath. He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him. When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way. McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible. There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance. It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him. He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.
I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am. He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role. He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life. He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences. Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life. Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here. His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish. There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance. Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film. Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.
Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty. She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S. She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence. She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive. Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film. They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters. She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan. She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.
The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality. As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral. Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me. Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film. It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest. He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.
Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level. The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors. Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood. Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful. This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail. The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release. The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter. Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes. It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire. Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint. The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.
The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off. It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done. On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story. Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story. I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman. I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off. Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity. I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.
Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script. The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them. I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities. Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns. The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in. It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.
So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance. I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents. I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads. Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze. It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion. If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes. Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.