Punisher: War Zone (2008)

2014 #40
Lexi Alexander | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 18 / R

Punisher: War ZoneThe 2004 film of Marvel’s foremost vigilante killer was the Punisher as mainstream Hollywood PG-13 blockbuster*, but this follow-up takes a different route. It’s more the grimy, low-budget, direct-to-DVD, B-movie version of the character; all action, gore, and a conscious lack of class. For some that will make the entire endeavour distasteful, but I can’t help but feel it’s a more faithful depiction of the character.

This is a reboot and sequel in one, Incredible Hulk style: Frank Castle’s backstory has been tweaked, and we learn that in montages and the like, while our re-cast hero gets on with the plot of the film — namely, taking down some drugs importers before they can bring something far worse into the country.

As the hero, Brit-playing-American Ray Stevenson is a suitably straight-faced action hero. His secret-underground-lair-style base of operations has a more classic feel than the block-of-flats origin-story place of the last movie, the kind of simple-but-effective decision that defines the movie’s entire approach. As the villain, Brit-playing-American Dominic West is suitably unhinged. He’s a top-quality actor when he wants to be, making this seem an unusual choice; but he chews the scenery with pleasant abandon. Both Brits fare better than their genuinely-American counterparts from the 2003 version. The quality of the rest of the ensemble varies, but all within the confines of the aforementioned B-movie style. There’s a consistency there that works.

PunishingYour enjoyment of the film will hinge on your tolerance for this level of filmmaking. War Zone isn’t a Marvel-derived adaptation to sit alongside their big-budget in-house productions, but one to rival other hard-R violence-focused flicks. It may be kind of nasty in places, but no more so than other movies of its ilk; and really, if you look at it from outside the confines of sometimes-simplistic comic book morality, the Punisher is quite a nasty character.

As with the sequel to that other semi-successful Marvel movie of a dark-character-turned-blockbuster, Ghost Rider, this sequel takes a grungier tack. For Spirit of Vengeance it didn’t quite come off; for War Zone, while it won’t sit at the forefront of the comic book movie pack, it is something of a guilty pleasure.

3 out of 5

* Technically it was an R. Didn’t feel like it. ^

Exam (2009)

2011 #2
Stuart Hazeldine | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 15

ExamThere’s an argument that the less you know going into any film the better. Naturally there are some films this applies to more than others, and Exam is one such film. Eight young professional types go into a job exam/interview; the next hour-and-a-half is all mysteries and riddles — which is why you wouldn’t want to know too much.

The film occurs in real-time (more or less) in a single room. These are two narrative tricks I always enjoy the potential of. I’m not saying every film should be set in a single room and/or take place in real-time, but when pulled off well either is an enjoyable feat. Exam succeeds in both. Real-time is, I think, easy enough with the right story if you put your mind to it (though the Johnny Depp-starring Nick of Time fails to make it work, in my opinion), but making an engrossing and — even harder — exciting film set in one room is a challenging prospect. Even in a film like Cube, though it takes place on one identical set, the characters are actually moving from room to room.

Writer-director Hazeldine’s screenplay is inventive enough to keep the story rolling throughout the entire film, barely pushing the tale past the natural end of its ideas, while the direction and camerawork keep it visually interesting without tipping over into pointless flashiness. I suspect he may be one to watch, though almost 18 months after Exam’s UK release he doesn’t seem to have any directing projects lined up (at least according to IMDb).

CandidatesSuch a contained story relies heavily on its characters and the actors’ performances. Largely a cast of un- (or little-) knowns, all are decent — one or two may be subpar, but I’ve seen a lot worse. I don’t quite understand how some viewers can find White, played by Luke Mably, to be a completely likeable character in spite of his obvious flaws — he has his moments, but surely he’s not agreeable overall? Not a jot. That said, his is the standout part, a scene-stealing performance from Mably. There’s no clear-cut audience-favourite, which (from reading a few reviews) seems to be a problem for some viewers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing: never mind the realism of there being one perfect person every viewer will love, audience-favourites will either predictably win or be shockingly dispatched, so what’s the point?

As it is, various viewers may root for various applicants; and even if you like none of them, it’s not necessarily a problem: the audience is more-or-less positioned as Candidate 9, solving the puzzle along with the characters on screen. It’s the mark of a good mystery that it drags the audience in to trying to guess it too. (Or perhaps it would just be the mark of a bad mystery that it couldn’t even manage that, so maybe it’s not a point of praise as much a point of not-criticising. You may take your choice on this point.) There are plenty of red herrings tossed liberally around, many of which are well-used but perhaps don’t have the part you’d expect them to play come the ultimate revelations. Which is fine — He's got this exam all tied upit’s quite nice to find a plot that doesn’t feel the need to tie everything in to its reveal; a plot that can wrong-foot you by occasionally focusing on something that’s ultimately irrelevant.

The most major flaw is perhaps the final few minutes. Exam ends with a compact array of twists, all of them well-structured — they grow neatly from what we’ve been told already, as any good twist should, rather than hurling themselves in from nowhere for the sake of it — but there’s also rather too much information. I like finding out what was going on, but ambiguity can be good too (look at Cube) — so on one hand I’m pleased we’re told things, but on the other I think it’s overdone, providing too much backstory in a rush to explain everything the filmmakers have dreamt up. Dialled back a bit it would hit the nail on the head.

I also don’t know how it well the film would stand up to repeat viewings. The advantage it has in being a small, little-seen film is that you can go in knowing virtually nothing about what’s going to happen, and play along with the guessing game the characters are involved in — this is the film’s primary joy. But with all the answers revealed, would it have as much to offer when watched again? I can’t answer that, obviously. It’s certainly possible — Cube (which I’m mentioning repeatedly because there are numerous similarities) still works — but there’s no guarantee. The story poses some thematic questions — about motivation, morals, that kind of thing — for those who care to ponder them, The other candidatesand films that invite pondering tend to invite repeat viewing; but then again it works equally well (better, ultimately) as a straight-up “what’s going on?” thriller.

Nonetheless, as a first-time experience, Exam is an intriguing and entertaining head-scratcher. It was a very early contender for my end-of-year top ten — and four months later, still is. A borderline 5.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Exam is on Movie Mix (aka more>movies) tonight, Wednesday 18th March 2015, at 9pm.