Director: Lexi Alexander
Cast: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, and Julie Benz
Runtime: 107 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Punisher: War Zone relaunches the Marvel Comics franchise for the third time, ignoring the 1989 and 2004 versions completely, creating an alternate origin, and developing an entirely different approach. Best described as no-holds-barred, without a doubt I can say you are not ready for this movie. Indeed, unless you’re expecting gallons of blood or you’re desensitized from produced violence after playing too many bloody videogames, you’re not ready.
Donning black body armor and toting uncountable weapons, Frank Castle, played by Ray Stevenson from HBO’s Rome, eliminates criminals that slip through the loose netting of the law. A former Special Forces honcho, his wife and children were murdered at a picnic, so now he hunts New York City criminals. And by that, I mean he slaughters wrongdoers with comic book violence that by design is outrageous—some might describe it as “fun” in the same way viewers revel in discussing the varied grotesque kills by their favorite horror movie mass murderer.
For those out to appreciate some “good gore,” War Zone is the movie for you: Punisher tosses a mob thug into a recycling plant’s glass grinder that etches his face away. A cocaine addict is punched in the nose, and the Punisher’s fist goes right through his head. A mental hospital orderly’s kidney is ripped out and eaten by someone named Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, from The Green Mile). One goon is exploded during a mid-air flip thanks to the Punisher’s expert bazooka aiming. Body parts fly across the screen with superfluous gushiness. Heads are removed in all sorts of ways. The body count must be somewhere in the hundreds. And it’s all rendered with sloppy, gushing make-up effects, cranking up the gross factor beyond measure.
The excessive violence makes the movie in comic book terms. It’s also irredeemably gratuitous, floating somewhere between over-the-top and absurd. Shocked at first, within minutes viewers will realize what they're in for throughout the remaining runtime. Some will accept that the violence almost winks at you with its outlandishness, while some will leave the theater shaking their heads, like one or two individuals during my screening.
The trouble with Punisher, versus other Marvel superheroes, is that he’s not a hero at all. He kills unrelentingly, so some cops think he’s doing good, like Det. Soap (Dash Mihok), who serves as the awkward and painfully unfunny comic relief. Others believe he’s reckless. That’s part of what gets him into trouble in the movie: Castle accidentally takes down an undercover FBI agent, believing him a criminal. Will the agent’s wife Angela (Julie Benz) and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) forgive Castle for his mistake? Sure they will. With an abundance of laughable cheesiness—the same type of oversentimental audience-coddling took place in 2004’s The Punisher and ruined that film altogether.
Turns out the guy Punisher left for dead in the glass grinder survived. Formerly named Billy “The Beaute” Russotti (Dominic West), his face is no longer beautiful, and now he calls himself ‘Jigsaw’. Along with his brother—you guessed it—Looney Bin Jim, both of them sporting the most exaggerated New Yorker accents ever put to film, Jigsaw attempts to reclaim the criminal underworld by getting revenge on Castle through Angela and Grace. Bad idea. ‘Nuff said.
Given impressive style and clarity by director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans), the movie’s action scenes are lucid for a change. Hollywood has been under the spell of choppy editing and hyper-fast-paced momentum in its action fodder in recent years, so Alexander’s ability to show each extreme death with extreme intelligibility should be commended. As should her movie’s appropriate treatment of the hero.
Merciless and heavy-hearted, Stevenson’s one-note interpretation of the character is suitable. He seems to have the weight of the world in regret on his shoulders as he tanks through bad guys like a machine. But we wouldn't know. He doesn’t say much, which, I suppose, is appropriate. What person bearing his kind of rage would be chatty? Though to quote Arrested Development, Stevenson’s “no Tom Jane,” but he’s got the look and grim façade, offering a stony appeal in the tradition of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Alexander gets more right than wrong, so credit must be given where due. Except, if suddenly I apologized for the pointlessly violent displays and dismissed the pathetic attempts at humor and maudlinism, I’d be a hypocrite, as those are complaints I’ve had for countless movies of this type. Sappiness exists in War Zone to cure one extreme with another. The remedy doesn’t work and downplays those aspects that do, which are based on watching stuff get kil’t real good. Coming as close as Hollywood will likely ever come to getting Marvel’s vigilante “superhero” accurately translated from the page, this movie has its moments, and most of them involve cheap thrills.