Lionsgate // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // March 27th, 2009
Vengeance has a name.
Everyone's favorite skull-shirted vigilante makes his third trip from the pages of Marvel Comics to the movie screen. Heads will be blown off.
Frank Castle -- aka The Punisher (Ray Stevenson, Rome) -- is back, singlehandedly wiping out every bad guy in New York with any weapon at his disposal. This time, he's going after playboy gangster Billy Russoti (Dominic West, The Wire, 28 Days), who is dropped in a glass crusher and reemerges as the hideously scarred Jigsaw. The rest of the "plot," as it were, involves Castle accidentally killing an FBI agent and then having to protect his widow (Julie Benz, Bad Girls from Valley High) and her daughter from Jigsaw and his crazy brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, The Green Mile).
I don't hate the 2004 version of The Punisher. I know that fairly unpopular opinion may discredit me to many, but it's true. Yes, Thomas Jane is badly miscast. Yes, John Travolta seems to be from another planet. Yes, it has very little to do with the Punisher comic, despite the inclusion of characters like Spacker Dave and Mr. Bumpo. I recognize that it fails as a Punisher movie, but as a straight action movie you could do a lot worse.
Now we have Lexi Alexander's Punisher: War Zone, which is Marvel Studios' attempt to rectify their 2004 mistake and make a real Punisher movie. I suppose on those grounds it succeeds: it's more faithful in spirit and closer in tone to the comic book than any previous incarnation. It's also not a very good movie.
Punisher: War Zone is not a sequel to any previous Punisher movie, but rather a kind of "relaunch" -- basically, an admission on Marvel's part that they had failed to get the character right the first two times at bat (though I don't think the comics company had much to do with the Dolph Lundgren version). It's the same thing they did last year with The Incredible Hulk, but that redo was much more of a success. It cast talented actors and told a fun, entertaining story that was well-paced. Punisher: War Zone, on the other hand, does none of that.
Like the previous Thomas Jane Punisher, there are attempts to connect the War Zone directly to the comic book. The film sees appearances by familiar characters like tech-guy Microchip (Wayne Knight, Seinfeld), bumbling detective Soap (Dash Mihok, The Thin Red Line) and, of course, Jigsaw. More notably, director Alexander and her cinematographer, Steven Gainer, have gone to great lengths to create a very comic-book look for the film; each shot is awash in a single color, from garish neon green to road-flare red. It's one of the more stylized Marvel comic book films (on the DVD bonus features, the filmmakers acknowledge they were inspired by Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy), and the movie is better -- or, at least, more interesting -- for it. Attempts have been made to couch The Punisher in reality, so you've got to at least give Alexander credit for going another way.
British actor Ray Stevenson picks up the mantle where Jane and Lundgren left off. He cuts an imposing figure -- all beefy gruffness -- and certainly looks the part, but doesn't give much of a performance beyond uttering single monotone lines every so often. For this, I'm not entirely sure he it to blame. Stevenson gets essentially no help from the film's recognizable supporting cast, nearly all of whom are so cartoonishly over-the-top that they trash the movie's chances of finding a consistent tone. The greatest offender is Dominic West as the villainous Jigsaw, who lays on a thick-slash-terrible "Joisy" accent and overacts his way out of his prosthetic makeup; West doesn't so much chew the scenery as pee all over it. I sense that he was going for a Nicholson-as-Joker style bad guy, who appears to be having a great time but is actually scary and demented, but the resulting performance is neither fun nor scary.
If nothing else, Punisher: War Zone almost singlehandedly makes the argument that it's officially impossible to get an NC-17 rating for violence. In this R-rated movie, we see an old woman with half her head taken off; a man dismembered with an axe (which leads to one of the film's most unintentionally hilarious lines: "I'm bleedin' out."), a guy dropped into and ground up in a glass crusher, and a guy being eviscerated and having his kidneys eaten while he watches. I lost count of the head traumas, but it's safe to say that more skulls are blasted and blown off than in a zombie film. Heads explode, faces are caved in with fists and shot off -- and that's just the work of the movie's hero. The movie is violence porn, draggy and amateurish during dialogue scenes but finally coming alive whenever it's time to crank up the carnage. In a way, that alone makes it almost worth checking out (and many viewers will be seeing it just for that reason), but the rest of the movie is so sloppily written and bizarrely acted that War Zone can't even work as B-movie sleaze.
Lionsgate has put together a decent package for the Punisher: War Zone 2-disc "special edition" (a single disc version, minus some extras and the digital copy, is also available). The film is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, enhanced for 16x9 playback. Seeing as how the visual design is the movie's strongest suit, the disc does an excellent job of showing if off; though there is the occasional fuzziness, it's deliberate and part of the aesthetic. The striking neon color palette consistently pops and contrast with the deep blacks that fill out every frame. It's a very good-looking movie. And, as with any action movie worth its weight it bullets, the 5.1 audio track is rousing when it comes to firefights and explosions (dig that meth addict getting blown up mid air), but still does a fine job of handling the dialogue.
Included on the first disc is a commentary track by director/kickboxer Lexi Alexander and director of photography Steve Gainer, whose participation makes a lot of sense given how much investment was made into the look of the movie. Their talk is pretty dry, covering technical details, how certain shots were achieved and what it was like shooting in various Canadian locations. Also included is a series of production and making-of featurettes: "Training to Become the Punisher," "The Making of Punisher: War Zone," "Creating the Look of Punisher: War Zone," "Meet Jigsaw" and "Weapons of the Punisher." Again, most are on the technical side and don't delve that deeply into what's being done differently this time or the history of the comic book character (which the best Marvel DVDs often contain). More than once, though, cast and crew do speak about how important it was for them to be totally faithful to the comic book. That kind of talk can only lead to trouble -- particularly when you come up short.
Rounding out the bonus material is the movie's theatrical trailer, a handful of bonus trailers and a second disc containing a digital copy of the film.
There are several things to like about Punisher: War Zone. The photography and production design are excellent, and I appreciate the fact that Alexander and her crew really set out to make it look like a comic book. Die-hard Punisher fans are likely to enjoy it. The only other thing it has going for it is an insane level of violence and gore, which will no doubt draw some viewers to it. There are a few moments where you think there's finally a film that captures the Garth Ennis Punisher, but those are quickly undermined by scenes where Punisher has his heart warmed by a little girl (seriously) or anyone who isn't Ray Stevenson starts acting. The movie isn't a complete failure, in that it at least offers a different take on the popular character, but it still isn't a success, either. The third time is not a charm.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review