Punisher: War Zone (2008) Movie Review

Moviegoers not prone to surf the Internet scouring for the latest movie news on an upcoming comic book movie probably has no clue that Lexi Alexander, the director of “Punisher: War Zone” is a woman. A very attractive and fetching female at that. In fact, they might be thinking that this Lexi guy is a pretty sick individual after the credits on “War Zone” have rolled, as the film is one brutal, balls-to-the-wall violence-a-thon. You know the type of things only guys are supposed to like and actually produce. If you can think of a way to kill a man (Knife to the head? Check. Chair leg to the eye? Covered. Arrow through the neck? Got ya covered.), Lexi Alexander has beaten you to the punch and put it into “War Zone”. This is, as promised, a comic book movie patterned after the brutally violent Garth Ennis Punisher comic books of recent years. Needless to say, kids need not attend.

“Punisher: War Zone” is a sequel to the 2004 version, where Thomas Jane played the titular character, a former law-enforcement family man name Frank Castle who becomes a vigilante after bad guys gun down his family. Now in New York, Frank Castle (this time assayed by Rome’s Ray Stevenson) is on the warpath against the local mob, dispensing justice at the sharp end of a combat knife and a hail of bullets. During one of his rampages, Castle accidentally kills an undercover federal agent, an act that traumatizes the vigilante almost as much as it does the agent’s widowed wife (Julie Benz) and her child. Enter FBI agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), friend of the slain federal agent, who swears to pursue the Punisher and bring him to justice.

The villain of the piece is one Billy Russoti (Dominic West, “300”), a vain mobster whose would-be death by glass machinery is halted when the FBI breaks up one of the Punisher’s raids. Horribly scarred as a result of his brush with death, Russoti gives himself a new name (“Call me Jigsaw”, he says), and is determined to meet two goals: get back his money and kill the Punisher. Think Jack Nicholson’s The Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman”, and then take away the bright suits and comic book henchmen, although Jigsaw does have himself a couple of goombahs in a homicidal father-and-son combo and his appropriately named big brother Loony Bin Jim (Dough Hutchinson) at his side. As in the comic book, Jigsaw is destined to become the Punisher’s greatest foe. Then again, considering how many bodies the Punisher is piling up, maybe “greatest” is being a tad generous.

“Punisher: War Zone” is both a reboot of the franchise and a pseudo sequel. It’s a sequel in that it doesn’t really mine the origins of Frank Castle’s transformation into the Punisher, but it’s a reboot in the sense that it re-imagines the route by which Castle’s family is slain. Here, instead of being murdered while on vacation in the Caribbean as was the case in the Thomas Jane version, Alexander’s Punisher is born when mobsters trespass on the Castle family’s happy picnic in the park. Castle is also no longer a federal agent, but is once again an ex-Special Forces Marine. This Punisher is very much the Punisher of the comic books, and is probably the most faithful of all the three cinematic incarnations of the character so far. In that respect, fans of the character should be very pleased with what’s shown up onscreen.

Although I had issues with Ray Stevenson’s casting as the Punisher, consider it over with after seeing the movie. Yes, the Punisher really should be this big, this brutal, and this physical. Stevenson, all 6’4” of him, makes for one intimidating Punisher, able to take on thugs with his bare hands, chop at necks with his knife, and take bullet rounds and still keep on ticking. This is the vigilante whose efforts over the last five years have been so prodigious that the files on his victims fill up an entire basement. Thomas Jane may have had the look of a lean, mean Punisher, but Ray Stevenson’s version is all about brute force and slow, but methodical killing strokes. This is how a Punisher movie should feel.

Somehow, some way, Lexi Alexander managed to get “War Zone” into theaters with an R-rating. I am assuming an unrated version will be coming to DVD, although I’m not entirely sure what would be there that isn’t already in the theatrical version. “War Zone” is a bloodbath of a movie, filled with over-the-top violence, gunplay, and exploding heads. I kid you not. Heads exploded via gunshots on a regular basis, bodies are impaled from long drops, and the Punisher has a bad habit of using people’s faces as a step ladder. The inspiration from Garth Ennis’ Punisher run is present from beginning to end, and Alexander choreographs it all with wild abandon. This is a bloody opera as conducted by a madman. Or should we say, madwoman.

Longtime fans of the comic book will get a kick out of seeing Wayne Knight as Micro, although disappointingly the obese gunsmith really doesn’t have a whole lot to do except for a few short (and not very notable) scenes. In the comics, Micro was an integral part of the Punisher’s operation, although Garth Ennis clearly saw the character in a different light. (I won’t spoil it in case you’ve never read Ennis’ take on the character.) Supporting the Punisher’s war on crime is Julie Benz (TV’s Dexter), who makes the best of a limited role, Colin Salmon as a determined fed, and Dash Mihok in a great performance as the amusingly absent-minded Detective Martin Soap, the NYPD’s one-man task force set up to bring in the Punisher. As you can imagine, working from the basement of the precinct, ol Soap has been after the Punisher for the last five years without much luck. Or so he says.

In the lead-up to the film’s theatrical release, “Punisher: War Zone” was rumored to be troubled, many of the whispers stemming from Lexi Alexander’s vision for the movie and the studio’s interpretation. It’s hard to say who won out, but the finished version certainly seems to indicate that Alexander’s vision has arrived intact, or as much as the censors would allow. One is hard-pressed to imagine a bloodier, gorier, or more violent version of the movie. No doubt the studio had a devil of a time marketing the film. The finished version is certainly a commendable take on the comic book character, although I must admit, it is so violent, and offensively so that after a while the word “comic booky” comes to mind. A silly complaint given the origins of the movie, you say? Mayhaps.

Without a doubt, the 2008 version is a marked improvement over the 2004 incarnation with Thomas Jane, which found the character dragging around fake fire hydrants in order to play some elaborate manipulation game with his victims. This Punisher doesn’t play games. He just plays “how many guys can I can shoot in the face before I run out of bullets”, and I found that to be so much more fun to watch. Gory as hell, yes, but it’s nothing fans of the character haven’t already been exposed to, thanks to the Punisher MAX comic book series. The Punisher is a death dealer, a quiet, efficient killing machine, but one where, every now and then, you see his humanity shine through as he remembers the purpose of his mission. Props to Ray Stevenson for shouldering the role like a champ. Considering the box office numbers for “War Zone”, a sequel is probably unlikely, which is unfortunate as I would have liked to see more of Stevenson in the role. But hey, at least we can finally say we got a good one at last.

Lexi Alexander (director) / Nick Santora, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway (screenplay)
CAST: Ray Stevenson … Frank Castle
Dominic West … Billy Russoti / Jigsaw
Doug Hutchison … Loony Bin Jim
Colin Salmon … Paul Budiansky
Wayne Knight … Micro
Dash Mihok … Martin Soap
Julie Benz … Angela Donatelli

Buy Punisher: War Zone on DVD