Frank Castle's one-man war on the scum of New York takes a sharp turn when a survivor of his punishment rebrands himself as Jigsaw begins targeting innocents. Will Frank find a way to take out Jigsaw while making amends for the Frank's own body count of innocents, or will Jigsaw make Frank's face a scarred reflection of his own? Lexi Alexander directs Punisher: War Zone from a screenplay written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Nick Santora, and stars Ray Stevenson and Dominic West.
Today a new season of Marvel's Daredevil drops on Netflix and everyone is excited about Jon Bernthal playing The Punisher. People have tried before to bring Frank Castle to live action with very mixed results. The first shot was a low-budget direct to video action film starring Dolph Lundgren. This one doesn’t really count because it is just a reheated Death Wish that they slapped The Punisher name on. Much like the Captain America where Red Skull is Italian, this movie is forgotten as it should be.
In 2004 studios realized how lucrative comic franchises could be with X-Men and Spider Man movies making bank so Lionsgate tried to make a franchise with Thomas Jane in the lead role. The movie wasn’t half bad, did ok at the box office and sequels were being planned. Instead of a sequel to the Jane film, we instead got the totally insane Punisher: War Zone. This film is the least successful Marvel film made grossing less than $8 million on a $35 million budget. It was also critically savaged and forgotten quickly. We were not worthy of this movie at the time, because it is exactly what you would want from a Punisher film.This is coming from a person who owns the Punisher Max series by Garth Ennis, but the character of Frank Castle/The Punisher is pretty stupid. Made popular in the 80’s/90’s when dark comic characters were in style, he is a one note character. He is a war vet, family was killed horribly, becomes the Punisher to KILL all bad guys in New York City. He is not a deep character and so his movies have suffered from being very shallow and violent. The Thomas Jane version tried to be a little deeper, and worked ok but a lot of fans said it wasn’t enough like the comics. Along came director Lexi Alexander and decided that she was going to give the fans a friggin' Punisher film and she did.
First of all, the film is violent as hell in a WAY over the top kind of way. The movie is less than 5 minutes old and Frank Castle cuts a man's head off with a knife, snaps an old woman's neck and kills a house for a mafia people. That is just the beginning of the film, and goes on to treat us with faces being punched to goo, heads being literally blown off, impalings, stabbings, and a man being blown up by a rocket launcher. In some movies, the violence is so real it hurts watching and it others it is so silly it makes you laugh, for me this movie is in the latter category. When he throws off a character from a roof and he is impaled on iron fence, that is not the end of the scene, Castle then has to jump off the roof and land on his neck, snapping it back further. Excessive? Yes. Gross? Definitely. But also a recreation of an actual frame from the comic book. People that were looking for a “representing the comic book” got what they were looking for here.
Even above the violence taken from comic book panes, this movie is the closest I have ever seen to a comic book come to life. There is not one scene in the film shot without multiple color backgrounds. Look at these examples of what the movie looks like and tell me that it isn't a work of art. Cinematographer Steve Gainer does what Ang Lee tried to do with his Hulk and turn the film shot into a living comic book world. I have said this about the film, it is a movie I could watch with the sound off and still enjoy it. It is such a fine line to walk between getting it right and being way too much and War Zone tiptoes it perfectly. If it would have been much more, the film would have fallen into Batman and Robin type zone.The film is also really DARK. I might have laughed with some of the over the top violence but the world view in this film is bleak. When Frank answers a priest saying, “Go be with God” with, “Sometimes I would like to get my hands on God” you know the film is not a cheery world with rainbows and kitty cats. One of my favorite scenes is when the villain (a really over the top Dominic West) named Jigsaw captures the family Castle is protecting and his sidekick named Microchip. The supervillian gives the hero the typical “choice” of who do you want to save. In other movies, think Spider-Man, Superman, etc.., the hero will figure out a way to save both, not in War Zone. He tells Microchip it will be fast and lets him die to save the family. Most movies would not have the nerve to go through with this and that is what sets this movie apart
Is the movie perfect? No, it is cheesy with some bad performances thrown in. The plot is also pretty basic and nothing that hasn’t been seen countless times before. Yet, the movie works as a Punisher film and a great intro to the character. Ray Stevenson is the best looking Punisher we have had and plays the role well. Lexi Alexander directs the hell out of the movie and makes it as uncompromising as the comics it’s based on and Steve Gainer makes the visuals sing. War Zone didn't win any awards but is the most Punisher-esque movie that there is in Hollywood. My hope is that more people discover this film and appreciate it over time. There are many worse Marvel films in the library (pick any Fantastic Four film) and this one doesn’t deserve to be the black sheep of the family.
Directed by Lexi Alexander.
Screenplay written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Nick Santora.
Starring Ray Stevenson and Dominic West.