With the size of the bodycount racked in PUNISHER:WAR ZONE I feel like it’s less apropos to review the movie than give it an autopsy.
To know The Punisher you’d think you have to go back to 1974 where he first appeared as a second-tier (or third tier?) villain of Spider-man. He was a Vietnam War veteran who’s family was caught in the crossfire of a mafia shootout. From there he dedicated his life to fighting the mob and killing criminals rather than arresting them.
But if you thought that’s where it started you’d be wrong.
You’d really need to go back to 1969 when a prolific writer named Don Pendelton coined the term “action-adventure” to label the series to novels were started titled “The Executioner”. The protagonist was Mack Bolan- a Vietnam War hero (highly skilled at intelligence gathering, guerilla warfare, marksmanship, armory and munitions) who goes on a one-man war against the mafia when they kill his family.
Five years later the current writer on Amazing Spider-man was inspired---eh, who we kidding? He blatantly ripped off Mack Bolan, renamed him “Frank Castle”, dressed him in black pajamas with majorette boots and THE PUNISHER was born!
In the “peace & love" of the 70s, the Punisher may have been the “villain” but in the Ronald Reagan/ Bernard Goetz 80s where Frank Miller and Alan Moore kicked off the trend of making superheroes darker -which quickly resulted in the rampant re-writing of all characters as grim vigilantes- it was natural that the two who had always been homicidal maniacs, the Punisher and Wolverine would become THE two most popular.
For his big break out series “Circle of Blood” (by Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck) the Punisher’s status was upgraded to “anti-hero” with what looked to be hair plugs and plastic surgery to tone down his ‘widow’s peak’ and make look like less of a grumpy, middle-aged man. The Punisher grew in popularity (especially amongst angry teenage boys) enough to headline three monthly comics at once, but eventually the stories got thinner until he became an undeniable parody of himself, faded back to second-tier and finally died, ending up in Hell
In 2000 acclaimed writer Garth Ennis resurrected the Punisher with “Welcome Home, Frank”. Ennis dug deep to the core what made the Frank Castle the Punisher. With the same sensibilities as his previous magnum opus, “Preacher”, Garth Ennis wrote the Punisher as scary, unflinching angel of death on a successful one-man crusade to wipe out all organized crime in New York. The twist was that he wrote it as an ultra-violent, but intelligent dark comedy. The Punisher went from a book I only scoffed at to one I’ve looked forward to reading every month for the last nine years.
The good news about Punisher: War Zone is that it’s based on the Garth Ennis version.
…or at least that was the goal.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE opens with our favorite ex-Special Forces marine doing what he does best: brutally killing as many Mafioso as humanly possible, with an almost ballet-like grace. It’s as routine for the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) as any given Tuesday, but then two major things happen on this outing.
First, one of his victims turns out to be an undercover cop, and killing cops or innocent people are the biggest unforgivable sins in his book. (In the recent comics he was on the verge of suicide after believing he accidentally killed a young Mexican girl). It’s enough to make him call his sidekick/ arms supplier ‘Microchip’(Wayne Knight) and pack up his entire operation.
The other big thing that happens that night is that he tosses his main target, a vain gangster nicknamed Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (Dominic West) into a glass crusher. The Beaut survives but he ain’t beautiful no more. A botched plastic surgery right out of Tim Burton’s Batman (the doctor uses horse flesh for some of the skin grafts!) inspires him to adopt the moniker of “Jigsaw” and become the Punisher’s archenemy.
To lure the Punisher out of retirement Jigsaw and his brother “Loony Bin” Jim (Doug Hutchison) kidnaps the dead cop’s wife (Julie Benz- who clearly was hired because of her uncanny resemblance to the director, Lexi Alexander) and child and Microchip. They are ‘the cheese’ in an abandoned building filled with every thug, killer, gangster and assassin in New York. The question isn’t “can the Punisher survive the gauntlet?”, it’s “how many different ways can he find to kill all these mother^&*ers?!”
Okay, now that at least sounds like the Punisher! A lot more than the last two lame attempts at making a Punisher movie, anyway.
The Punisher of 1989 starring Dolph Lundgren was always considered to be a horrible movie but really it’s just kinda…”meh”. It’s like every other generic action movie of that time. The only thing Punisher-y about it is that it’s Frank Castle was a big, scary dude dressed in all black that carried a knife with a carved skull on the handle. The Punisher movie of 2004 starred diminutive pretty-boy Thomas Jane as a Frank Castle that was brooding but not the least bit threatening. He’s changed into a DEA agent whose son buys him a skull t-shirt from a street vendor on the beach. When his family is killed he pretty much only goes after John Travolta’s crew, in-between bouts of shenanigans with a comedy-relief supporting cast that were actually taken (and cartoonified) from Garth Ennis’ stories. Despite having a much bigger budget and resources it’s no better than its predecessor.
Much like “The Incredible Hulk” just before it, Punisher: War Zone is neither a sequel to nor a reboot of the previous movie. More like an apology/ do-over. With War Zone you have a movie that accurately captures the Punisher and his world to a “T”. The costume is dead-on and Ray Stevenson made for the kind of big, imposing Frank Castle that makes you shit your pants when he walks into the room. He looks so much like the Punisher that you’d swear he was the model artist Tim Bradstreet used for all the Punisher covers he illustrated. Not mention, there are plenty of other characters (McGinty, police officers Soap and Budiansky) and plot points adapted directly from the Garth Ennis’ comics.
Punisher: War Zone also has a firm R-rating, which freed the film to be as bloodthirsty and graphic as it needed to be to stay true.
…So, with all that why was this movie bad like the other two??
At first viewing you can’t help but noticing how horrible most of the acting is. Ray Stevenson is great but he, Julie Benz and Wayne Knight seemed to be only ones who know they’re in a serious action movie. The ‘Budiansky’ (Colin Salmon) and Frank Castle play off each other in a way that works but Detective Soap (Dash Mihok) is Barney Rubble with a badge and McGinty (T.J. Storm) goes from being a ruthlessly African-American/ Irish gangleader to the head of a trio of monkeymen rooftop jumpers. Dominic West (who I hear is pretty good on ‘The Wire’) plays Jigsaw so WAY over the top it’s like he was doing an impression of Robert Davi doing an impression of Underdog’s villain, “Riff Raff”.
It seemed obvious that the problem was that director Lexi Alexander didn’t take the Punisher seriously…But it turns out nothing could be further from the truth. In listening to the audio commentary you find out that she had a great respect for the Punisher and Garth Ennis’ stories. Almost every problem with this film can be traced back to her lack of experience. She falls into the same traps that Zack Snyder did with Watchmen. She sets out to make a good ‘COMIC BOOK MOVIE’ rather than a good movie. It opens with scenes of the Punisher framed in comic book panels which is a tired gimmick that all but announces your movie has decided to limit itself by pandering to comic book fans. It’s the kind of tell-tale sign you’ll find in Ang Lee’s “Hulk”, Dick Tracy and others. It played well on the Wonder Woman TV series 30 years ago, but in the new era of Iron Man and The Dark Knight fans now know they can expect better.
The other rookie mistake they both made is being loyal to the source material to a fault. It’s clear that Alexander read it and loved…it but didn’t understand it past what was on the surface. In between the lines of Garth Ennis’ Punisher it is a biting satire. In Lexi Alexander’s clumsy, still wet hands it becomes spoof (War Zone is only her fourth film. She was a champion kickboxer before that). As much as she nails brutality of the violence and makes you wince through most of the scenes all the others will make you laugh out loud.
…And there's the big irony. Punisher: War Zone is not good. It’s just not.But DAMN, is it entertaining!
The violence escalates to the cartoonish level of ‘Story of Ricky’. The ridiculousness of the body count is second only to John Rambo. As much as I may tell you I don’t like splatter porn movies, that is essentially what this movie is. Imagine a Friday the 13th movie where Jason was the hero…and there’s HUNDREDS of over-sexed teenagers for him to come up with new ways to kill. It would’ve fit in perfectly as a third featurette in Tarantino/ Rodriguez’ ‘Grindhouse’.
After three tries and three strikeouts you’d think that maybe it’s just impossible to even make a good Punisher movie. Not true. In 2006 just a month or so after that Punisher was released there came the perfect Punisher movie…only it starred Denzel Washington and was titled ‘Man on Fire’. Last year, on the heels of War Zone, Liam Neeson channeled the Punisher for the surprise, sleeper hit ‘Taken’. It’s a relatively simple concept and obviously good movies CAN be made from it. I suppose the real trick is convincing Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson to put on the costume.
At least Punisher: War Zone does what every bad movie should have the decent to do, which is push the envelope to the point of being ‘good’ again. As long you watch it friends and plenty of booze, I dare say you could have a great time with it.
Audio Commentary by Director Lexi Alexander and Director of Photography Steve Galner:
I have never…NEVER listened to an entire director’s commentary until this one. Granted, that’s usually because I’m watching a movie with good dialogue that I don’t like having obscured- not at all the case with War Zone, though.
I’m so use to commentaries by casts and crews that struggle to remember the movie but Lexi Alexander and Steve Galner take you threw it all step by step. Lexi Alexander isn’t just an assertive personality; she is one tough German broad! Even though the movie totally died at the box office she’s completely unapologetic (damn proud, actually) of her creation and spits at all the critics who didn’t understand what she was doing because they didn’t read the books. Except for a few gaffs with the script or schedule, everything that succeeds or fails in War Zone falls squarely on her shoulders (and I’ve no doubt she’d kick your ass if you tried to say otherwise).
For instance, it turns out it was decision to have Dominic West to play the Jigsaw character over the top and then pushed him to play it even broader. Then again, it was also she that insisted that every thing with the weapons be as authentic as possible. Supposedly the movie is hugely popular wit the U.S. military.
‘Creating the Look of Punisher: War Zone’
This featurette gives a fascinating look into just how much planning and work went into every shot. They completely won my respect for far they went to make the film look like the comic books and how most of it was done in Canadian sub-zero temperatures.
This one is kinda of throwaway. Not much more than Dominic West laughingly bitching about the prosthetics he had to wear.
‘The Weapons of the Punisher’
Here’s where we get to see Ray Stevenson in action with real U.S, marines training him on how to properly use a multitude of weapons to take out a room packed with armed hostiles. You forget that Stevenson is just an actor the way he performs each of the moves so accurately. Even the Iraq war veterans are impressed with him.
Alas, there’s just no way I can tell you it’s good, but for me Punisher: War Zone is the very definition of ‘Gulity Pleasure’ movie. If nothing else I find it admirable how dedicated Lexi Alexander was to bringing to life my favorite version of the Punisher. Maybe it’s the xenophobe in me but I can’t help but feel like the movie would’ve been a win if English was her first language.