2008’s Punisher: War Zone is the third attempt at bringing Marvel’s infamous anti-hero to the big screen, after a bargain-basement 1989 adaptation and a 2004 picture with Thomas Jane. While this reviewer enjoyed the Jane incarnation, it underperformed at the box office, though its strong home video performance prompted sequel talks. Production on the sequel was continually delayed, which resulted in Jane departing and a whole new creative team coming on-board to reboot the Punisher series once again. One of the complaints that greeted 2004’s The Punisher was its lack of actual punishing, and it seems that director Lexi Alexander heard those cries from the comic book fanboys, as War Zone is filled with carnage. Unfortunately, the storytelling nuances of its predecessor are lacking here, resulting in a perfectly serviceable slice of cheesy entertainment in dire need of a more fleshed-out script.
A former Special Forces instructor, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) is now a vigilante, waging a war on organised crime ever since his family were slain by the mafia. While pursuing crime boss Billy Russoti (Dominic West), an undercover FBI agent is inadvertently killed and Billy is left horribly disfigured. Castle is unable to forgive himself for the FBI casualty, trying to make amends with the agent’s widow (Julie Benz) and thinking about retiring as The Punisher for good. However, Billy is soon back on his feet, rechristening himself as Jigsaw and teaming up with his insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) to wreak havoc on the city, which compels Castle into action. Meanwhile, a couple of cops (Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok) attempt to track Castle down with plans to arrest him.
To the credit of writers Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, Punisher: War Zone is a more faithful cinematic incarnation of the comic book mythos than the previous two attempts. It’s clear that the film was engineered by people who’ve actually read a Punisher comic, with Castle’s backstory taken directly from the pages of the books, and with Castle getting assistance from his weapon supplier Microchip (Wayne Knight). The problem with War Zone is the trite aspects of its screenplay, as it’s full of forgettable dialogue and the storytelling is underdone. Jigsaw even makes the hopelessly clichéd statement “Billy is dead. From now on, you call me Jigsaw.” Hensleigh’s picture gets flack for its extensive runtime, but its patience is one of its strengths, giving Castle the chance to be more snide in his punishing through crude acts of trickery and deception. Here, Castle doesn’t exhibit the same creativity, instead going all-out with guns and mayhem. If taken as a pure cheesy action ride, War Zone does deliver; it’s just that it could’ve been a true keeper and the definitive Punisher adventure if more attention was paid to the in-between stuff.
Alexander is clearly a Punisher fan herself, as she worked to recreate a cinematic look which mirrors the comics. Thus, the colour palette is uniquely comic book-esque, and the cinematography is dark and moody, reminiscent of 1994’s The Crow. Moreover, War Zone is full of bloody chaos offered up with glee. A Punisher movie could never be PG-13, and Alexander knew this, dishing up a blood-and-bullets extravaganza that goes bonkers with violence and gore. It’s a bruiser of an action movie, evoking the spirit of the ’80s in its action (think 1985’s Commando). Better, the set-pieces are competently assembled, devoid of shaky camera and rapid-fire editing. It’s great to be able to discern what’s happening without getting a migraine. Fortunately, while War Zone has enough gore to rival a Saw film, it’s presented well, with a comic book tone that never lets it spill over into the realm of despicable bad taste. It’s more of a grin-and-enjoy actioner, rather than repulsive gore-porn.
Stevenson is The Punisher; he has the perfect build and demeanour for the role, and represents the most faithful cinematic incarnation of the comic book character to date. The actor looks relentless, going about his business of punishing without compunction, and looking completely casual as he tears into his opponents. It seems foolhardy to compare Stevenson and Jane though, as both actors do a superb job on their own merits as Castle/The Punisher, and each possess strengths and weaknesses. Also in the cast here is West, who gleefully hams it up as Jigsaw, while Hutchison chews the scenery with gusto. Many have compared West and Hutchison to Heath Ledger’s Joker, even going so far as to claim that the actors were directly inspired by Ledger. Contrary to fanboy belief, the movie was conceived and shot a long time before The Dark Knight was released, and – shock horror – movies were actually made before The Dark Knight. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, though Knight makes a nice impression as Microchip.
In a nutshell, Punisher: War Zone is a comic book adaptation motivated by gratuitous violence. It may be difficult to respect the film in a serious sense, but it is a good fun time if you’re part of the target market, an orgy of brutality delivered at just the right frequency to provide an evening of easy-going, popcorn-munching entertainment. It harkens back to the action genre’s heyday, coming across as a B-grade ’80s film executed with A-grade production values and a slick budget. And yes, it works as pure fun, but it’s too bad that other aspects of the script were mistreated and rushed out the door.