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Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


The Punisher (1989)

Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen.  Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on.  However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way.  Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films.  Many were planned, but very few got a final product.  None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons.  The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense.  In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender.  But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?

Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit.  Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher.  His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police.  Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits.  However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence.  Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia.  They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them.  Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto).  Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.

I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle.  He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders.  He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life.  He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt.  He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior.  On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work.  He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal.  Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor.  The motorcycle is a nice fit as well.  It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.

The supporting cast is decent enough.  Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark.  Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance.  Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher.  He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle.  So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.

Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different.  He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso.  He’s too laid back.  I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence.  I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants.  There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer.  No one ever appears to be more than he can handle.  It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.

In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed.  Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills.  At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency.  That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.

The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery.  Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere.  From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak.  There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family.  He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome.  Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back.  Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us.  Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante.  He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society.  He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned.  That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy.  The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character.  The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture.  They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.

So, does this film hit that mark?  Decently so.  I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character.  Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle.  What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.

Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget.  Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited.  Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting.  Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood.  This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot.  And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea.  The film itself was shot in Australia.  Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York.  So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal.  Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film.  Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida?  I don’t think so.  Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature.  The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been.  Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.

Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been.  Nor did it have a quality director behind it.  This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever.  It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success.  This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman.  That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director.  Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to.  Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.