Kevin's Review: Punisher: War Zone - The Death of The Punisher
by Kevin Powers
December 5, 2008
The Punisher may be a tortured purveyor of justice and a one-man SWAT team, able to spin upside down from a chandelier while firing automatic rifles and taking out dozens of bad guys, but the man-in-black, Frank Castle, is no match for director Lexi Alexander, who has done the improbable - put a bullet right between the eyes of one of Marvel's darker, richer characters. Punisher: War Zone is as bullet-ridden as it is bloody, and as bloody as it is campy. And even though a messy mix of hot metal, plasma and stupid can be fun, any thrill is tempered by knowing that the Punisher storyline is the true victim.
Louis Letterier was recently able to reboot Marvel's Hulk, following Ang Lee's lackluster attempt in 2003. Here, Alexander sought a similar goal, considering the humdrum Thomas Jane Punisher in 2004 (which you might consider a reboot to the Dolph Lundgren version of 1990). The previous flick, while arguably smelling of a Sunday afternoon TNT movie, at least contained balanced amounts of plot, action and character performances. Jane surfaced the pain motivating the Punisher well enough, and proved a nimble and capable vigilante. Even John Travolta, as the #1 bad guy, was a solid fit.
In War Zone, on the other hand, Ray Stevenson is a clunky and dull Punisher, who is perfectly suited portraying the character in posters or other static moments that require little emotion or movement. He's got the aesthetic down, but at 6'4", Stevenson inspires little confidence in the belief that he can move about unnoticed or make a spirited getaway. His emotional range seems similarly slowed. Obviously the Punisher is quite the stoic fella, but Stevenson could have done so much more with the turmoil and pain considering his admirable performances in HBO's "Rome."
Speaking of HBO, fellow channel brethren, Dominic West (of "The Wire") joins Stevenson in War Zone as the disfigured Jigsaw (seen snapping an innocent neck below), who is certainly short a few pieces of a whole puzzle. Before being thrown into a giant blender by the Punisher, West plays Bill Russoti, an up-and-comer in the mafia who has caught the ire of the evening executor. Russoti manages to survive in ways only a comic villain can - with enough injuries to inspire a newly demented persona. Jigsaw then seeks revenge.
War Zone is actually promising for about the first twenty minutes or so. Stevenson looks like a great Punisher, Alexander has some nicely colored scenes and the violence is what we'd expect, if not gleefully over-the-top. Once Russoti turns to Jigsaw, however, the film takes a campy turn and never looks back. West's performance comes off as more slapstick than insane, and once he's joined by his brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), who is equal parts cannibal and karate, the pair look like laughable evil misfit toys that the likes of Tim Burton might've dreamed up.
And let's talk about the blood. Alexander certainly must have found some extra supplies on sale, because War Zone has more blood in it than moody lighting. Heads explode in fantastic thick splashes, skin is pierced like a knife through a napkin and gratuitous fatalities are delivered just for the hell of it. As the movie wears on, you're in a much different place than when you started. Any sense of story or seriousness is shed in favor of the next messy kill. By itself, overdosing on bullets, blood and dimwitted dialogue isn't unwelcome - and it can be fun - but the Punisher story is (and should be) much more than that. Any chance of the brooding vigilante rising to the heights of Hulk, much less Iron Man, is pretty much lost. The Punisher can now, sadly, be buried alongside other fallen favorites like Daredevil and Ghost Rider. RIP.