Talking Movies [Punisher Month]: Punisher: War Zone

Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?

Released: 5 December 2008
Director: Lexi Alexander
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $35 million
Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Doug Hutchison, and Colin Salmon

The Plot:
After losing his wife and daughter to mob violence, former Marina Frank Castle (Stevenson) has dedicated the rest of his life to eradicating criminal scum as “The Punisher”. However, when he accidentally kills an undercover Federal agent, Frank suffers a crisis of conscience; with Agent Paul Budiansky (Salmon) leading the charge to apprehend him, Frank’s life is further compounded when narcissistic mobster Billy Russoti (West) survives an attack by the Punisher, left brutally scarred as a result, and reigns chaos across the city as the sadistic “Jigsaw”.

The Background:
Having cemented himself as one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes following his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher soon became a recurring character in media outside of the comic books. Sadly, neither the 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle or the vastly under-rated 2004 film were critically or financially successful, despite one earning a cult following and the other legitimately being one of my favourite movies. Sadly, the story behind Punisher: War Zone is a pretty dour one as star Thomas Jane eventually grew frustrated with waiting for a sequel to his film and walked away from the role only for the sequel’s script to be retooled into a complete reboot that director Lexi Alexander aimed to be a throwback to the action movies of the 1980s. With Ray Stevenson replacing Jane and undergoing rigorous training for the role, tensions rose between Alexander and the film’s American distributor Lions Gate over the film’s rating, and the film’s limited theatrical release meant it was a box office bomb upon release. Reviews were mixed to negative, with some taking exception to the film’s graphic content and others enjoying its extreme violence and fidelity to the source material. For my part, I was annoyed that Jane was replaced as, with just a few tweaks, this could have easily been a direct sequel (hell, even with the recast it could have been) but I found myself enjoying the film’s excessive gore and over-the-top action much more than I expected and found it to be a worthy representation of Marvel’s infamous anti-hero.

The Review:
Punisher: War Zone was part of the sadly short-lived “Marvel Knights” sub-series of Marvel movies; completely unrelated to the two previous Punisher movies, the film begins with Frank Castle already some four years into his vigilante career. From his hidden underground lair, he observes local news and arms himself in the fight against organised crime and criminals all across New York City. This leads him to crashing a party for a known Mafia boss, which sees numerous mobster’s dead but also results in the death of an undercover FBI agent, Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari).

The Punisher is appropriately dressed and armed for war.

I initially didn’t think much to Stevenson’s Punisher gear; unlike his predecessors, he’s garbed head-to-toe in in heavy-duty, tactical riot gear that kind of makes him look like a turtle. However, in practice, the outfit works really well; the body armour protects Castle from both gunfire and knives, especially around vulnerable parts of his body like his chest and neck, and he has spray-painted a bad-ass skull on the front in luminous paint to intimidate his prey and draw bullets away from his unprotected head. Like the 1989 film, we learn about Castle’s tragic past through brief flashbacks, news reports, and exposition from other characters; his origins are probably to closest to the source material so far, with his wife and children being victims of a random act of mob violence, and his reputation is one of stark contrasts.

The Punisher’s reputation makes him a feared and controversial figure.

Police officers like Saffiotti (Tony Calabretta) praise his violent actions as he does what others can’t and isn’t restricted by the system, the mobsters are obviously in fear of him and constantly driven to frustration by his interference and persistence, and while Detective Martin Soap (Mihok) is clearly protecting Frank from reprisals as part of the laughable Punisher Task Force, Budiansky makes it his personal mission to bring Castle in after he accidentally kills Donatelli. Budiansky acts as the primary audience surrogate for those unfamiliar with the Punisher; initially angered that Castle has been allowed to run rampant, he eventually becomes a reluctant, and then willing, ally of Castle’s as their interests align.

The Punisher’s allies believe whole-heartedly in the sanctity of his mission.

Like his comic book counterpart, the Punisher also has help from his armoury, Linus Lieberman/Microchip (Knight), a tech-savvy figure who supplies Frank with weapons, armour, and leads to help him in his war on crime. A staunch believer in the Punisher’s actions, Microchip is aghast when Castle, wracked with guilt over Donatelli’s death, considers leaving town and quitting his vigilante ways. Microchip has taken on a protégé, of sorts, in the film, former gangbanger Carlos Cruz (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), which initially angers Castle but, when Carlos gives his life trying to protect Donatelli’s daughter, Castle finds his black and white view of the world further skewed. While Frank is, as always, a man who has lost everything and has been driven to the edge, with nothing to life for but his suicidal, never-ending war against crime, his allies believe in him so completely that that are willing to not only defy the system for him but to give their lives for him and the greater good, something which Frank is determined to see avenged at every opportunity.

The Russottis are a couple of absolute madmen who steal the show.

Punisher: War Zone really emphasises the traditional Italian-American Mafia life; the film is littered with stereotypical mobsters, Dons, and the like, all of whom are dressed sharp and full of pride and gusto. None are more sharply dressed and full of arrogance than caporegime Billy Russotti; known as “The Beaut”, Billy is a mean, sadistic, gangster who is obsessed with his looks and has a chip on his shoulder about having the answer to tired old men. Dominic West is clearly having the time of his life in the role and this becomes explicitly obvious after the Punisher tosses Billy into a glass-crushing machine and he is left hideously disfigured. Now calling himself “Jigsaw”, Billy goes completely off the rails and, in addition to employing the services of his usual goons and a gang of freerunners, releases his psychopathic brother, James (Hutchison), from a mental institution Also known as Loony Bin Jim (a name both brothers despise), James is a cruel, animalistic cannibal who rips people open to feast on their flesh and innards and regularly (and wilfully) engages in all kinds of disgusting and self-destructive behaviour. James’s influence only encourages Jigsaw’s newfound madness and brutality, escalating Billy’s vendetta against the Punisher and his desire to become the top dog in New York. Thanks to some impressive practical effects, Jigsaw’s gruesome visage is wonderfully brought to life in a way that is both disturbing and ludicrous and West uses the make-up to accentuate his performance into a bombastic glee that is truly entertaining to behold. His referring to God as an “imaginary friend” always gets a chuckle out of me and his performance is perfectly in keeping with the film’s more exaggerated moments that are ripped right out of a Punisher MAX comic book.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One of the absolute best things about Punisher: War Zone is how massively over the top and gory its action scenes and violence are; this version of the Punisher is also a hulking brute of a man who is capable of throwing himself, and any nearby weapons, at his foes and caving in their skulls with his bare hands but, as you might expect, Castle is also a driven, determined, nigh-unstoppable one-man army who is adept with numerous firearms. When the Punisher shoots or stabs people in this movie, it’s not just a few squibs of blood or arterial spray, it’s a fucking bloodbath with bones breaking, heads exploding, and limbs being blown off and it’s absolutely fantastic!

A hardened vigilante, Castle continues to be haunted by his losses and to be a tragic figure.

Whenever the gun fights kick off or Loony Bin Jim gets triggered, the gratuitous violence is quite literally splashed across the screen; the Punisher coldly and mercilessly executes his prey with barely a flicker of emotion, sets his own broken nose at one point, and is more than capable of taking out entire rooms full of armed men all by himself. While Stevenson’s Punisher is a resourceful, militaristic, focused machine of a man, he is also more than capable of conveying the pathos and emotion that are associated with the character. He is haunted by the deaths of his wife and kids and so traumatised at having accidentally killed one of the “good guys” that he desperately tries to make amends with Donatelli’s. Like Lundgren’s Punisher, this sees him all but begging Donatelli’s wife, Angela (Julie Benz), to shoot him in recompense for his mistake.

The film is an unashamedly gratuitous and over the top, action-packed piece of entertainment.

Considering how over the top Punisher: War Zone is, the film is littered with some fantastic performances by character actors like Dominic West, Wayne Knight, and one of my absolute favourite actors, Colin Salmon (who really needs to have bigger film roles). Budiansky’s grouchy demeanour and interactions with Soap and Castle are a real highlight, bringing some levity to the film (his enraged reaction when Castle blows a mobster’s head off with a shotgun is hilarious!) I’m not massively familiar with ray Stevenson and, if we’re being honest, he’s not as good of an actor as Thomas Jane but, having said that, he really nails the Punisher role. Like I say, he’s much more of a stoic military man but he’s still, perhaps surprisingly, fully capable of conveying the character’s complex emotional dichotomy. While Castle’s mission is one deeply rooted in a personal desire for revenge, Jigsaw’s vendetta against him escalates things considerably; after he kills Microchip’s mother, Carlos, kidnaps Donatelli’s daughter, and forces Frank to kill Microchip, it’s incredibly cathartic when the Punisher finally gets his hands on Jigsaw and tortures him to death with a cold, brutal execution worthy of his name.

The Summary:
Even today, The Punisher remains one of my favourite movies and it was a bitter pill to swallow when Thomas Jane walked away from the role and the next film was made as a reboot. However, I was presently surprised at how enjoyable Punisher: War Zone is; it’s a very different type of film and much more over the top and action-orientated but that’s equally as fitting for the character as infusing the story with tragedy and pathos. While it would have been extremely easy to take another pass at the script and frame it as a continuation of the previous film with an older, more seasoned Punisher, Punisher: War Zone stands by itself as an enjoyably entertaining action film that doesn’t hold back one iota. I respect it for that, and for being over the top with its depiction of gratuitous violence and bloodshed, and it resonates with me on many levels as a fan of this genre. As a result, I find it disappointing that the film didn’t perform better as everyone did a really good job and I honestly would have liked to see more from this version of the Punisher and his world.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What did you think to Punisher: War Zone? How would you rank it compared to the other two Punisher films? Were you annoyed that Thomas Jane was replaced in the role or do you think this film improves on its predecessor? What did you think to Stevenson’s portrayal of the character and Dominic West as Jigsaw? Did you enjoy the film’s gratuitous violence or did you think it was a little too over the top? Would you have liked to see more from this version of the Punisher and the Marvel Knights sub-series of films? How have you been celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on Punisher: War Zone, and the Punisher in general, leave a comment below.

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