WAR ZONE (2008)
Director: Lexi Alexander
It's no secret that the principal focus in many mainstream comic books is that eternal struggle between good and evil. But while this war is waged primarily between clearly-defined superheroes and supervillains, there are also those characters that fall in between. They are the antiheroes, those who will go to whatever further lengths they deem necessary in order to accomplish their goals. Some will use fear and intimidation against their foes. Others will lie, cheat, and steal as much as they see fit all in the name of what they believe is the "greater good." And then there are those who will cross that line that the more traditional heroes won't by killing people if they have to. Characters like Spawn and Wolverine have no problem taking a life, but one character has become synonymous with fatal violence. Whether they be mobsters, drug dealers, gangs, corrupt cops and politicians, rapists, or any other kind of criminal, they'll all eventually meet their maker thanks to the Punisher. Created by Jerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita Sr. in 1974, the Punisher was born in a time when movies like Magnum Force and Death Wish were depicting justice from the barrel of a vigilante's gun. The Punisher was a hit with fans following his initial appearance as an assassin who had been fooled into targeting Spider-Man, and he has become one of Marvel's most prolific B-list characters. And in 1989, the Punisher became the star of the second feature film to be based on a Marvel Comics property. Starring Dolph Lundgren in the title role, the movie ended up going straight to video in North America and was forgotten relatively quickly.
He got his second chance at Hollywood stardom fifteen years later in the wake of Marvel's surging dominance in the world of comic-based movies, and the movie starring Thomas Jane in the title role and John Travolta as the villain was only a modest box office success. It proved to be quite popular when it arrived on DVD, however, prompting Lions Gate Films to approve a sequel. But thanks to troubles during the development phases, Jane chose not to return, and the project passed through multiple writers and directors before it was decided to simply wipe the franchise's slate clean with a reboot. The movie, titled Punisher: War Zone, finally got settled enough to enter production and see its release on December 5, 2008. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being a pretty tremendous flop that was hated by critics and quickly forgotten by moviegoers. That's a shame, because they missed out on one of the most absurdly fun movies to come along in a while.
Six years have passed since Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) watched his wife and children die at the hands of the mob. During that time, Castle has become "the Punisher," a one-man army waging a violent war against organized crime. When a notorious mobster avoids jail after the shooting of a key witness, Castle decides to crash the party thrown in the mobster's honor. After he brutally kills all of the partygoers, he discovers that a lone survivor, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), managed to escape. Castle tracks him to a recycling plant, wiping out nearly all of his henchmen before throwing Russoti into a glass-crushing machine. Unfortunately, Castle later learns that one of the henchmen he killed was actually Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari), an innocent FBI agent who was working undercover. A devastated Castle considers abandoning his life as the Punisher, swearing to make amends to Nicky's widow Angela (Julie Benz), and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas).
As it turns out, he may have a way to make up for his mistake. Russoti lived through Castle's attack, left with a hideously mutilated face that leads him to adopt the new alias "Jigsaw." Upon learning that Nicky was a mole, he targets Angela and Grace as he tries to find the money that Nicky had been left in charge of. And knowing that Castle will soon come after him, Jigsaw breaks his psychotic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) out of a mental institution to back him up and kidnaps the Donatellis and Castle's weapons supplier, Microchip (Wayne Knight). He then recruits as many punks, thugs, and goons as he can to stand between his hostages and Castle. With the FBI and the local police trying to hunt down both he and Jigsaw, Castle must fight his way through Jigsaw's personal army if he wishes to rescue those innocents who have been put in harm's way.
Punisher: War Zone is of what has become a rare breed. They simply don't make movies like this anymore. Jason Statham's movies get close, but the days of movies like Cobra and Commando are long gone. Those action movies with unstoppable protagonists and over-the-top villains stopped being trendy when the '80s ended. But Punisher: War Zone has no trouble going back to that style. It embraces it, never once trying to shy away from its nature as a B-movie. It revels in its threadbare plot, its unbelievable characters, its hammy acting, and its over-the-top violence. It's an '80s movie with a 21st-century flair, and in spite of its flaws, it's a fun movie.
At the helm is Lexi Alexander, an Oscar-nominated short film director handling only her second feature-length production here. I'll confess that I've never seen any of her prior work, but her direction here isn't bad at all. The movie has a particular energy to it, only really slowing down when it absolutely has to. She also, thankfully, never goes the trendy route by having the camera bounce around while the editor makes a cut every half a second. That sort of thing gets old quickly, and I'm glad that Alexander never resorts to it. And thanks to the intimate cinematography from Steve Gainer, the unique use of color and lighting, and the bountiful violence and bloodshed, Alexander is able to make the movie look like Steve Dillon's Punisher artwork leapt right off the pages of the comic books. Not only does the movie look very authentic, but the efforts of Alexander and her crew help to make it feel authentic as well. Even the music composed by Christopher Franke helped to set the tone. Its militaristic sound really supports the idea that the Punisher's crusade against his foes is not just a vendetta, but a full-fledged war.
Next on my list is the screenplay, credited to Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. You might think that because two of Iron Man's writers also handled Punisher: War Zone, the two movies might be similar in style. But if you do think that, you would be wrong. The similarities between this movie and that one begin and end with their Marvel Comics roots. All truth be told, there's no real reason to critique the writing in a movie like this, because its all superfluous. Nobody has ever accused the Punisher of being a very deep character, and the script ultimately reflects that. There's no real soul-searching or any reflecting on the nature of vigilantism. This isn't Death Wish or The Brave One. It's all just set pieces for the big action sequences. But is there anything really wrong with that? Not every movie has to have really thoughtful, profound writing or anything like that. What's wrong with having one-dimensional characters shooting each other for an hour and 45 minutes?
Last but not least is the acting. A lot of fans were concerned when it was announced that Thomas Jane was going to be replaced, but Ray Stevenson is great in the role. He totally embodies the character, playing him as a shark that cannot, will not be stopped. Stevenson is good in the parts where he has a dramatic moment of pain or self-doubt, but really, nobody goes to see a Punisher movie for an emo Frank Castle. They go to see him completely obliterate his enemies, and Stevenson is up to task when it comes to that. The other members of the cast do fine jobs as well, though their roles are pretty much background dressing. Julie Benz and Wayne Knight are likable, while Dash Mihok and Colin Salmon are okay in their roles as a cop and an FBI agent relentlessly hunting the Punisher. Doug Hutchinson is also really good as Jigsaw's insane brother. But it is Dominic West that steals the show. His performance as Jigsaw seems to be inspired by Jack Nicholson's Joker, playing the role as over the top as he can get. The incredibly silly accent he adopts only adds to the whole thing. You can tell West is having an incredible amount of fun as Jigsaw, and that fun is infectious. He doesn't make for a very intimidating villain, but he's most certainly an entertaining one.
It seems almost serendipitous that Lions Gate Films opened and closed 2008 with ultraviolent action movies featuring Julie Benz in a supporting role. Starting with Rambo and ending with Punisher: War Zone is a heck of a way for a movie studio to bookend a year. Granted, Punisher: War Zone is not perfect But it makes up for that by reveling in its own silliness. Yeah, it's incredibly violent. Yeah, the dialogue is bad at times, nor does it have much of a plot or character development. But the movie doesn't care, and it doesn't expect you to care either. And you know what? I enjoyed it a lot. So on my typical scale of five, I'm going to give Punisher: War Zone three and a half stars and a big thumbs up. Its not for everybody, but those who like this sort of thing will eat it up.
Final Rating: ***½