Punisher: War Zone

Dir: Lexi Alexander, 2008. Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz. Superheroes / Comics
Punisher: War Zone
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wished for a proper Punisher movie. As a diehard comic book reader and collector, there was a point where I discovered the idea of vigilantism and The Punisher immediately became my favorite superhero (actually, more like an anti-hero and minus the “super” part since he has no legitimate powers other than being a complete and total badass). With over 30-some-odd years of history and through various directions that comic creators have taken the character, it would seem that there are plenty of great stories to cull from in order to make a solid movie adaptation. But for whatever reason, while all the Punisher movies have incorporated different aspects of the original source material, none of the cinematic translations have been 100 percent successful, either financially at the box office or critically among both reviewers and fans. However, if you’re well-versed in the run by writer Garth Ennis over the course of the last decade or so, then Punisher: War Zone comes pretty darn close to capturing the over-the-top gory lunacy of Ennis’s books.

The movie wastes little time in getting right into the violent action. After a brief title sequence, the film opens at a grand dinner gala with several heads of the mob congregating to discuss business and celebrate with Uncle G, the Godfather-esque elder of the East Coast mafia. But their dinner is cut abruptly short when the Punisher drops in and literally slaughters just about all 30 of these bad guys in the span of a few short minutes. The action is brutal, highly stylized, fast in pace, and so over the top that you won’t be able to process everything going on with just one viewing. The Punisher manages to cut a head off, break a neck, lodge his hunter knife into a skull, kick a chair leg into the eye of a thug, then hang upside down from the chandelier where he unloads a never-ending spray of bullets from his machine guns into whomever is left in the room, as well as anyone else stupid enough to enter it. Did I mention this is all just in the first 10 minutes?

Billy Russoti (played by Dominic West from The Wire), one of the more powerful, arrogant, and vein mobsters of this East Coast crew manages to escape with his gang to the Russoti Bros power plant where he’s finalizing a big shipment of potential biological weapons that are coming into town. The Punisher (as we learn later on) is actually Frank Castle, a former police officer with extensive military experience who donned his vigilante persona after his entire family was killed by the mob in Central Park where he was also left for dead. Considering his background, The Punisher is often very calculating and well prepared when it comes to taking out his enemies, but with a last minute tip on Russoti’s whereabouts, he makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to try to off him and the remainder of his crew before the night is out! Two major transgressions occur from this rash decision. The first: Castle ends up killing Nicky Donatelli, one of Russoti’s right-hand men, who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent. And second: after a brief tussle, Billy falls into a glass bottle compactor. Rather then finish him off then and there; the Punisher decides to inflict a slow and painful death on Russoti by turning on the compactor with him still in it. (Ouch!) The results? Castle accidently kills an innocent person, and in the process he also manages to create a new monster.

Despite having his face completely destroyed, Billy Russoti survives and adopts a new persona to match his appearance, that as the villain Jigsaw. Having learned that Nicky was an undercover agent, Jigsaw is now out to recover his money by going after Nicky’s wife and daughter whom the Punisher feels obligated to protect. Jigsaw breaks his brother James (aka Loony Bin Jim) out of an insane asylum and begins plotting both his revenge on Frank Castle and the completion of his deal with the Russians to bring in biological weapons into New York. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Martin Soap, a bumbling NY police officer with a degree in psychology who is the head of the Punisher task force, who is paired up with Paul Budiansky, an FBI agent and former partner to the slain Nicky Donatelli, who is hellbent on capturing Frank Castle.

Director Lexi Alexander delivers one of the most vivid and colorful stylized comic-book movies since perhaps Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which is somewhat surprising considering the dark and gritty world that the Punisher originates from. But regardless, it absolutely works with the hyper reality of it all, especially in the way she illustrates the extreme violence in the movie, which far surpasses anything that was done in the two previous Punisher movies. It comes as no surprise that Alexander knows how to shoot violence considering she’s also a world karate and kickboxing champion fighter(!) In other words, she kicks ass—both literally and figuratively. And while most people might be sensitive to seeing onscreen violence in a movie of this sort, it’s done in such an over-the-top fashion that you can’t help but laugh at it. Perfect example (and one of my favorite moments) is when the Punisher backs cokehead Ink (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) up against the corner of a doorway and punches him so damn hard that his face caves in.

The other highlight is the cast. Ray Stevenson is a great, great Punisher. Not to take anything away from Dolph Lundgren or Thomas Jane who both played the character previously, but Stevenson's  physical presence and calm demeanor, especially in the way he inflicts punishment, is spot on with the depiction of the character in the Garth Ennis comics. It’s also kind of badass that he doesn’t speak a single line of dialogue until about 25 minutes into the movie. Wayne Knight plays his sidekick Micro (aka Microchip), a long standing character of the comic books who supplies Castle with his weapons, as well as intel on the bad guys. It’s amazing that it took three movies to finally introduce this fan favorite character into the movies, but Knight (normally known as a comedic relief) portrays Micro as a serious, dramatic player who believes in what Castle stands for. It’s also a surprise that it’s taken this long to bring Jigsaw into a Punisher movie. The villain seems like a no-brainer as an adversary for the Punisher and he’s played with over-the-top glee by Dominic West. The show stealer would be Doug Hutchison who plays Loony Bin Jim, a character that was actually created specifically for this movie and whose weird, brotherly relationship with Jigsaw makes for some of the oddest black humor of the whole flick. By the time he has his showdown fight with Castle, he’s been off his meds for most of the movie and it makes for a crazy match.

For me personally, I always liked the out-of-the-box wackiness of the Punisher as filtered through Garth Ennis’s writing, and while this only borrows elements here and there from specific stories he told, it seems like of the three movies, this is the one that captures the spirit of his books. It really depends on which era of The Punisher you’re a fan of. If you prefer the late 1970’s/early ‘80’s stuff, the Dolph Lundgren version might be more to your liking, but Punisher: War Zone is absolutely The Punisher movie I’ve always wanted.

Posted by:
Rob Galluzzo
May 2, 2012 6:44pm
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