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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
In the spring of 2004, Jonathan Hensleigh’s film adaptation of Marvel Comics character The Punisher released to mild critical enthusiasm and middling box office receipts. Like many films from that era, however, The Punisher built up an audience on DVD, where it eventually sold over four million copies, generating about 60 million dollars in revenue for Lionsgate Films. Film execs as well as star Thomas Jane began talking sequel, and it seemed for a bit we might get another Punisher movie with Jane once again in the title role. A few years went by, however, without much news on the sequel, and creative differences eventually got the better of the project.
Sometime in the summer of 2007, Lionsgate announced Ray Stevenson, best known for his portrayal of Titus Pullo on HBO’s Rome, would take over the role from Jane, who departed the project over the previously mentioned creative differences. Lexi Alexander, mainly known for her previous career in martial arts (where she was a world champion) and for portraying Kitana in the live-action stage tour of Mortal Kombat, signed on as director of the project after it was assured she could go after an R-rating. Alexander previously directed Green Street Hooligans, a film about street-level soccer hooligans starring Charlie Hunnam. The script for new project, now a full-on reboot of the series titled Punisher: Warzone, was penned by, among others, Nick Santora (along with an uncredited assist from Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter).
The plot of the film is completely stupid and inconsequential, serving mainly as a delivery for violence. Sadistic and vain mobster Jigsaw becomes head of his crime family after most everyone within it is massacred by the Punisher (who also kills an undercover agent, unknowingly). Jigsaw reunites with his brother, the clinically insane Loony Bin Jim, and then conspires with some Eurotrash gangsters to bring chemical weapons into New York City, only to betray them and then appeal to the feds for immunity, a boatload of cash, and the whereabouts of one Frank Castle, aka the Punisher – Jigsaw is out for revenge. Meanwhile, Special Agent Budiansky (Colin Salmon – an underappreciated actor who needs more work) is hot on Castle’s tail, intending to take him down for the unintended murder of the aforementioned undercover agent. Matters are complicated when Castle, stricken by remorse for his actions as he has taken down “one of the good guys,” must also protect the deceased agent’s family (Julie Benz and Stephanie Janusauskas) from further Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim mayhem.
Punisher: War Zone is a very different film from Hensleigh and Jane’s The Punisher. Produced under the little used Marvel Knights moniker, War Zone begins at a point in Punisher canon where Castle is firmly established and entrenched within the character (and Stevenson plays him extremely well). Whereas the Jane film was a PG-13 origin story for the character, War Zone is an all-out hard-R flick filled with graphic violence and intense carnage and mayhem. The film is dark and dour, but unexpectedly not humorless – War Zone is filled with considerable moments of hilarity, mostly stemming from a dark sense of gallows humor – which helps set the tone immensely well. Stevenson’s take on the character is also a very different take on the previously established film versions of the character. He is stoic, silent for very long stretches, and almost completely remorseless. He is also violent to the point of absurdity and uncompromising in his righteous moral values. He’s essentially a more charismatic Charles Bronson from the later Death Wish sequels.
One aspect I really liked about the film is that it includes characters, both previously established in Punisher canon and new to the film, not explored previously on the big screen. Jigsaw, portrayed by an absolutely manic Dominic West (of The Wire), is the big bad, stealing every scene he’s in. He’s nearly upstaged, however, by his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, of LOST), a character created solely for this movie (but who fits in so perfectly with The Punisher’s established canon that I’m surprised he actually didn’t come from a comic book in the first place). The two brothers are unpredictable, extremely violent, and both are certifiably insane. Microchip, a character I understand to be somewhat disliked by fans of the comic, also pops up in Punisher: War Zone. Portrayed by Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld), Microchip is given considerable gravitas by Knight in his relatively short amount of screen time. He does a lot with the material he’s given.
For a relative newcomer (she had previously only really directed one film), Lexi Alexander’s direction isn’t bad at all. Despite a few sequences of needless gun porn (the chandelier shot at the beginning of the movie is unfortunate), she stages action sequences quite well considering the low budget of the film (War Zone was shot for 35 million dollars, a fraction of the cost of its big-budget cousins over at Disney, Sony, and Fox – think about this: Robert Downey, Jr. was paid more to appear in The Avengers than the entire budget of this film). There’s no shaky cam or extreme cutaways from the graphic violence and mayhem on-screen. Effects are practical in some cases but CGI is poor and noticeable in others, again to be expected in a film with such a low budget but somewhat of a disappointment nonetheless. The stunt work (there are parkour gangsters in this movie unfortunately) leaves a bit to be desired, but can be overlooked for the most part. Alexander makes great use of color in the movie, framing shots in dark colors and contrasts, particular purple and grey. Additionally, the over-the-top nature of the film is definitely evocative of the carnage-filled action classics of the 80s, which is a good thing. I have to believe this was a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers.
Let it be said that Punisher: War Zone isn’t a great movie. It is filled with a tremendous amount of what could be evenly considered as flaws, from its garish style to its over-the-top performances to its completely ridiculous and unbelievable plot. It is absolutely good dumb fun, however, and has a body count higher than your average action flick. A total failure in the box office (the film opened with a dismal take of four million dollars and closed with barely ten million worldwide), Punisher: War Zone was met with critical derision, garnering a 26% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as complete audience disdain. Lionsgate also chose to releasethe film just one week after their own Transporter 3, essentially crowding the market with over-the-top action films. In the years since, however, Punisher: War Zone has become something of a cult classic in the making. Comedian Patton Oswalt, for example, has championed the film, as has cult internet figure Daryl Surat. It may not be Marvel’s finest moment financially, but I’m glad this ultra-violent movie exists, and will continue to watch it year after year. It’s bloody good fun.