Punisher: War Zone (2008) – Directed by Lexi Alexander – Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok, and Wayne Knight.
It’s fitting that Jigsaw is the villain for PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, as we have a third film starring the Punisher that just falls short of being something special, and more pieces for fans to pick from to assemble their ultimate Punisher film. Each of the three films – 1989′s Dolph Lundgren PUNISHER, 2004′s Thomas Jane PUNISHER, and now 2008′s Ray Stevenson WAR ZONE – are good movies, but all of them fall just short of being something truly special.
Yet there is a sense among Punisher fans, if you talk to them long enough, that all of the right pieces are here to make that really special film, they’re just not in the wrong place. For me, I think swapping Lundgren and Stevenson’s villains would improve both films, as Lundgren’s burnt out approach to the Punisher would benefit from the balance Dominic West’s cartoonish Jigsaw would offer, and Stevenson’s more focused, but shaken Punisher would benefit from being paired off with Jeroen Krabbe’s cool mobster. Perhaps the same could be said for John Travolta’s Howard Saint and Krabbe, too.
The more interesting question for me is whether we can argue that the Punisher has proven himself the most successfully adapted Marvel character to the big screen? Financially, of course, this is far from the truth, but if we look just at the quality of lead performances, the Punisher has starred in three rather good films made by three different directors and starring three different actors. Even if we factor in the TV movies, Captain America has been played by three actors, but only Chris Evans’ film has reached this level of creative success. Spider-Man has been played by three actors, too (even more when we factor in The Electric Company and Japanese series), but the Nicholas Hammond TV version iteration falls far short. Nick Fury has been played very well by two different actors, but Sam Jackson hasn’t been asked to carry a film, yet. Blade was played very successfully by Wesley Snipes and then … well, I haven’t seen the TV show, so I can’t really comment on Sticky Fingaz’s performance
Only the Bruce Banner/Hulk combo really stands in the Punisher class, as Bill Bixby, Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo have all played the Green Giant’s alter ego to varying degrees of success, though Ruffalo has not yet been asked to carry a solo movie.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is much like the Lundgren PUNISHER film in that it is an era-specific genre piece. The differences between the late ’80s and the late ’00s creates a different aesthetic in the film, as WAR ZONE is a slick, highly-stylized action flick that moves fast and hits more violently. WAR ZONE is a darker film in terms of its style as the graphic violence has been significantly turned up (we see face half-blown off, chairs jammed through people’s skulls, knifes jammed straight through the top of heads), but not in terms of its content. Lundgren’s Punisher was a man near the end of his rope, while Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is a man not quite there.
None of the three Punisher movies are purposely tied to one another, but if you can get past the variation in origin (here, we’ve got Frank Castle’s family killed at a picnic and not in a Puerto Rico massacre), the proper viewing order would go Jane, Stevenson, and then Lundgren, and I think that makes a pretty solid trilogy.
Actually, the proper viewing order would be: the Jane/Saint subplot, then Stevenson, then the Jane/Joan/Bumpo/Spacker Dave sequence, and then Lundgren.
Get on that, movie people.
WAR ZONE sees a Frank Castle in the prime of his killing life, but when he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent, he decides he wants to quit. He tries to give the agent’s wife some money but she won’t take it, though he does start to develop a bond with the agent’s daughter. All of the acting they require Stevenson to do is in his wheelhouse, because Frank’s overall demeanor means he’s going to stand there looking angry and a bit forlorn 95% of the time, no matter if he’s cracking a joke, making a threat, or talking to the woman whose husband he accidentally killed.
The film builds its emotional core around the relationship between Castle and the little girl, and it’s effective. She reminds Castle of his own family, which makes him sympathetic without being heroic – a tact that the Jane film kept forcing on us.
Dominic West plays Billy “the Beaut” Russoti, who gets dumped into a glass shredder by Castle, and ends up with a mangled face, and he recasts himself as Jigsaw. Jigsaw is the worst part of the film, as he and his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) are sadistic, cartoonish killers. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they’re not all that much fun to watch, and they never really feel like proper threats to the Punisher.
There’s some good secondary characters here in the form of Detective Soap (Dash Mihok), Agent Budiansky (Colin Salmon), and Microchip (Wayne Knight), and really, when the Punisher and his cast of characters are on the screen, WAR ZONE is a highly enjoyable action film. It’s when Jigsaw and his minions are on screen that the film takes a nosedive in quality.
That doesn’t detract too severely from the overall quality of the film, however. I really like WAR ZONE’s dark story and its slick presentation. Some of the killing sequences are wonderfully rendered and provide the perfect mix of violence and over-the-top style. Ray Stevenson does an excellent job walking in Lundgren and Jane’s footsteps, and for the first time in all of the films, I get really excited at the idea of the violence to come. The brutality of what happens here hits home, and WAR ZONE gives just enough emotion to make this about more than simply killing a bunch of bad guys.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is like the perfect “back issue” movie. If I went to a comic shop and bought a bunch of PUNISHER back issues, WAR ZONE is exactly what I would want to find.