I so wanted to start this review with the emphatic words, “THEY GOT IT RIGHT!” Now, this is not to say this movie doesn’t move G.I. Joe into the right direction, but it left me lacking for many reasons. One of them being that this movie had too many trailers that spoil too much. If you’ve seen all three trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, there are not many surprises left for you here. But frankly, the big problem with this film is that the villains and far more entertaining and memorable than the heroes. Simply said, I wanted Cobra to win because I didn’t care about the Joes.
Mercenary and master of disguise Zartan, who is still impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), frames the G.I. Joes as traitors, and has them terminated. However, three survive in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) who must go it alone in order to fight back against those who conspired to kill them and their fellow Joes. Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) initiate a prison break to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker) to set the next stage of their plans forward. Cobra Commander’s plan is to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons so that Cobra can take over the world by threatening to use its massively destructive Zeus space-based weapon. Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and Jinx team up with General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the “original” G.I. Joe, to stop Cobra Commander from implementing his plan and expose their treachery to the world.
What this sequel gets right that the first didn’t was the tone and style. There are high tech gadgets and such peppered throughout the movie, but on the whole, this sequel features more visceral weaponry and warfare. No more energy weapons, no more holograms. This has a more grounded feel while still giving use a technological boost to make the story and scenarios work. Also, the CGI is vastly superior in every way. There wasn’t a single moment where my eyes caught a badly rendered shot, or witnessed anything that looked discernibly CGI. Another thing that is gotten right are the iconic characters themselves. Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander, and feels like a serious take on the character being a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization hell bent on dominating the world. Although, with the now slightly garbled and digitally processed voice for him, at times, it can be difficult to understand what he is saying. However, all in all, I was far more pleased with this representation of the character which never does anything to blatantly contradict who he was in the previous film. At most, it’s barely acknowledged in order to simply move forward without dragging undo baggage along.
The action sequences are greatly done giving us that tougher, more hard edged style. It feels like more straight forward military combat using recognizable tactics and weaponry. It’s all generally well shot, but the camera can get a tad too unstable with some editing that is slightly quicker than necessary. It’s a very tame shaky cam / quick cut mentality that really shouldn’t detract from your experience. This is mostly seen in the close quarters combat, or when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight. That is another great confrontation that is again treated like a special attraction, but like before, we don’t get nearly enough of it. Probably the best action scene is with Snake Eyes and Jinx fighting the ninjas on the mountain side swing back and forth taking shots and slashes at each other. It’s dynamic, fun, and dangerous with plenty of smart turns. I like the touches the filmmakers threw in where some of the ninjas either miss the zip line or hit a rock formation, causing them to plummet to their deaths. It’s a very nice, smart touch that simply sells the precarious peril of the situation. I also loved the clever setup and execution of the jailbreak sequence. It had a lot of great touches that made it intriguing to watch unfold. However, the problem of this film is that there is so much action but so little plot to justify it.
And even then, the plot itself doesn’t always flow smoothly or coherently. At times, some plot elements feel disjointed and rushed. This happens in one section of the movie early on in two segments. First, we are introduced to Jinx as she trains with Snake Eyes while Blind Master, portrayed poorly by RZA, imparts some abrupt exposition in voice over that is just dropped on us without context. There’s no setup to anything he’s saying about Snake Eyes having to locate Storm Shadow and bring back to face justice for what he did to their clan. It’s just, “Where did this subplot come from? What does this have to do with the main plot of this film?” It just drops into the movie as if you missed a string of scenes somewhere. Jinx has essentially no real introduction here. She just happens to be there, and we’re just supposed to happen to know who she is. Also, once Storm Shadow is there facing judgment, a whole bunch of new exposition gets breezed through in a flash about who really killed their master and why. It’s very jarring and poorly handled as if they thought up this subplot on the fly and just crammed it into a tight corner of the movie just to have it there. Even then, how Storm Shadow and everyone else jumps around from one conclusion to the next follows no stream of consciousness. It’s implausible how they make these rapid fire connections and revelations. It’s awful screenwriting and direction. And again, RZA can’t act worth a damn. Every line he delivers just sounds terrible. So, I have no idea why they cast him in this role of a wise martial arts sensei. He puts in the worst performance of the entire movie. Yes, he is an exponentially worse actor in this movie than Channing Tatum, who actually does a better job in this film than the last.
There is also a scene where Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint setup a plan to get close to the imposter President in order to confirm their suspicions and expose him. However, the scene is laid out without really understanding what their plan is. Roadblock is setup outside ready to take a shot at President Zartan after he’s lured out of the banquet hall, but it’s never understood what they plan to accomplish by doing this. This sequence came off as confusing and disjointed because there’s no setup to understand what their ultimate goal is or what everyone’s purpose is in the scene. It seems it served two purposes. One, just to clue the Joes in on who was impersonating the President, and two, to setup another action scene where Roadblock and Firefly throw down. It’s a damn good action sequence, but it was a lot of clunky screentime used up with little purpose.
The film has so much action and little plot that once we were actually in the third act, I couldn’t be sure it was the third act. The movie doesn’t ramp up to another level of tension or urgency to signal that these action scenes are any different than the half dozen we’ve already gotten in the movie. And the other problem is that I was more engaged by the villains than the heroes. I didn’t want to see Cobra get defeated. I liked those characters because they made the movie fun and entertaining. I kept waiting to get back to seeing Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan conspiring about evil schemes, and having loads of fun doing it.
Now, the most I will confirm to you about Channing Tatum is that he doesn’t have a lot of screentime. I know I’m going to deserve a kick in the head for saying so, but I think the movie would have been better if he was in it more. Tatum and Dwayne Johnson do have excellent comedic chemistry that really entertained me, and made their characters really fun and exciting. This made Duke and Roadblock lively, relatable characters that I wanted to spend time with. If we had this chemistry flowing through the whole film with them teamed up and trading sharp quips, taking on Cobra with a smile on their faces, I think I would have been more engaged by the heroes. Instead, they fall kind of flat.
While Dwayne Johnson puts in a good performance, it just doesn’t seem like he was portraying a character. It just seems like Johnson being himself, more or less. There’s nothing distinct about Roadblock apart from Dwayne Johnson. I didn’t really see a character in there that had his own distinguishing characteristics or attitude. Maybe this is also a script problem, but you can watch an interview of Dwayne Johnson and he doesn’t seem any different from how he is in this role in this film or any other film he’s been in. As the heroic lead of the movie, I felt letdown. He doesn’t inject enough weight or action hero mentalities to really support this film the way it needed to be. Once he no longer had Tatum to bounce that charismatic, funny personality off of, I found myself no longer invested in Roadblock at all.
Even Bruce Willis seems like he’s just being lazy Bruce Willis here. There’s almost nothing more he does in this film than what you saw in the trailers. General Joe Colton is a bland character with no depth, no interesting qualities, and no real back story given that links him with the G.I. Joes. He’s mostly there just so they could have Bruce Willis in the movie for name recognition. I’ve never seen him do so little in a role before as he does here. What this movie needed was strong leads as strong characters with a real vibrant, passionate, gung-ho attitude, but no one here has that at all.
The rest of the Joes, aside from the always cool Snake Eyes, are throwaways. By the time the film bothers to give us any insight into who they are, I had already stopped caring about who they were. Jinx isn’t even given that much. These are characters put into the film to fill out the plot and nothing more. The script barely does anything with most of them, and the actors in many of these roles aren’t engaging, charming, particularly charismatic, or especially memorable. They were just there, and I didn’t connect with any of them.
Conversely, same as with the first movie, we get great villains that make the movie as enjoyable as it is. As I said, Cobra Commander gets the perfect makeover finally giving us the iconic chrome mask and militaristic garb. He’s given a great presence, and an intimidating driving purpose in the story. Destro is mentioned and technically seen, but Cobra Commander chooses to abandon him during the jailbreak sequence (which features a wonderfully funny and sharp performance by Walton Goggins as the warden). Cobra Commander is a great villain being very single-minded but also intelligent and cunning. He’s not the excitable, egotistical fool from the 1980’s cartoon. He is very much like a cobra – sharp, deadly, and fierce. I want to see more of him!
Although, I have to say my favorite villain here is Firefly, portrayed by Ray Stevenson. Frankly, Stevenson is a born bad ass. I have yet to see this man do wrong in anything he’s done, and he is an absolute pleasure to experience as this rugged, smart mouthed villain. Being a major fan of what he did as the Punisher, I bought into every second of his action scene abilities here. He clearly had a lot of fun digging into this character which is full of evil charisma and wit. He probably has the most action scenes to his credit in this movie amongst all the villains, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him kick some ass.
And color me impressed by Jonathan Pryce sinking his acting talents into President Zartan. Arnold Vosloo has not even a minute’s worth of screentime in this movie, and so, the portrayal of Zartan as the President falls entirely on Pryce. Like Stevenson, he was having loads of fun being this charismatic, playful villain. He is so much fun to watch, and not for an instant did I doubt he was fully into being Zartan in disguise. Pryce usually portrays rather sophisticated, cultured characters, but this gave him the chance to just chew a little scenery and be a total bad guy that was loving every minute of it. Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan just make an excellently entertaining trio of bad ass bad guys.
And Byung-hun Lee does put in another excellent performance as Storm Shadow, but the story takes him in another direction than we saw before. However, it is entirely in line with the character’s history as he has switched loyalties before, but I just wish his motivations had a better build up and pay-off. This is in relation to the rushed and disjointed exposition scenes I mentioned previously. It didn’t sell his turn in the story at all to me, and I kept waiting for him to pull a double-cross to make at least one satisfying plot turn for Storm Shadow.
In terms of creative direction, tone, and style, this is absolutely the better G.I. Joe movie. It never outright contradicts the first movie, but instead, strips away what wasn’t palatable and make it a leaner, tougher action franchise. However, the plot is kind of clunky never really finding its footing, and never adequately conveying the stakes or objectives to the audience. It’s clear the characters know what they’re doing, but not often enough does the audience understand where things are going, what characters are planning, or what the scope of the threat truly is. Frankly, I think the filmmakers weren’t that concerned with that. The movie is generally fun, exciting, and technically well made, but the plot seems to exist for no more than to string a series of action scenes together. There is a main plot here that is very good, does work, and could work amazingly well if handled with more care. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just seemingly didn’t know how to utilize solid, fleshed out, and well flowing storytelling skills to make this plot fill up the movie. You could take out maybe two extraneous, if not well done, action scenes, and use that screentime to smooth out the jagged edges in the story. Use it to bridge the gaps and convey characters’ intentions as they move forward in the plot. I just never got that feeling that the plot was developing towards an apex, or that even the heroes themselves knew what the stakes were going forward. It seems the most the filmmakers felt we needed to know is that these are the good guys and they need to stop the bad guys. If Paramount Pictures really did postpone the release of this movie at nearly the last minute to do a good chunk of re-shoots, I’m not sure what they were for except for maybe a single scene with Johnson and Tatum trading witty banter over some target practice. It was a fun scene, but could’ve easily been cut. I don’t think they shot anything to flesh out or smooth out the story more because, obviously, it could still use some work. While this movie might have gotten squashed if released last summer, I’m not sure how much better it will fair in this early Spring release.
While I would recommend seeing G.I. Joe: Retaliation to an extent, I still wouldn’t recommend it above Olympus Has Fallen. That was a much better put together action movie on every level than this with an action lead that an audience could really get behind. I’ll be interested to see if this G.I. Joe sequel gets an extended cut on Blu Ray because it could benefit from some added scenes of plot and character. Ultimately, the entertainment factor for me entirely came from Cobra. When the film was focusing on the heroes, I couldn’t wait until we cut back to the villains. They were just all kinds of enjoyable because the actors were charismatic and vibrant where the heroes where one dimensional and rather bland. I mean, in a film where all of their friends and fellow soldiers are violently blown to hell, you’d think these heroes would have a fiery passion lit underneath them. You’d think they’d be ready to throwdown an all-out assault, and wage a take-no-prisoners type of war against Cobra. Unfortunately, there is no such fierce emotional drive to these heroes, and that’s what made them fall flat for me. If you just want a slew of really good action scenes, this film will deliver that for you, but director Jon M. Chu is not the most competent storyteller. Maybe there was studio interference that resulted in making changes here and there due to supposed poor test screening response. But if there’s one thing you don’t sacrifice is good storytelling. There was a really good story here, but not the right storytellers to make it good enough.
Poor 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.