Punisher: War Zone (United States/Canada, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Punisher: War Zone Poster

Marvel Comics must really like The Punisher. This is their third attempt to bring him to the big screen. There's a saying that "the third time's a charm," but it doesn't apply here. More appropriate is this baseball-related statement: "Three strikes and you're out." Chiefly because of the slick production values and shorter running time, Punisher: War Zone is an improvement over 2004's The Punisher (with Thomas Jane in the title role), but not to an extent that most people will notice. It's considerably better than the earlier Dolph Lundgren version, but the less said about that the better. Punisher: War Zone is bad enough that it may remind viewers how lucky we have been this year to get two superior superhero movies in Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

This is essentially a Steven Seagal movie without the Ponytailed One, and may appeal to those who enjoyed Seagal's rather bland, cookie-cutter action films. It's a combination of ultra-violent fight scenes, dull exposition, and a hero who prefers grunting to lengthy discourse. The director is Lexi Alexander and I'll give her credit in two areas. First, she doesn't skimp on the blood and shows no fear of a high death toll. This is not a film where the bad guys get knocked out or arrested. They are frequently decapitated, blown to bits, and eviscerated. No attempt was made to water down this R-rated content to a more teenage-friendly PG-13. With compromises, it could have been done but, thankfully, someone with balls made the decision to force the kids to sneak in (which they no doubt will). So, if bloody mayhem is your kind of thing, Punisher: War Zone offers it with glee. Secondly, the action sequences are competently filmed and presented. No shaky camera. No fast editing. It's refreshing to be able to watch a fight and know at any given moment what's going on. Unfortunately, most of the fights aren't of the sort where coherence matters or where the result is in doubt.

The story is a stock vigilante tale. The Punisher, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson), makes a mistake while clearing out a mansion full of mobsters - he kills an undercover Federal agent. Guilt-ridden as a result of this mistake, he vows to protect the man's widow (Julie Benz) and daughter. They need his protection because a couple of bad guys named Jigsaw (Dominic West) and Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) are after them. It all has to do with some missing money and personal vendettas. Meanwhile, the Feds are trailing the Punisher. One of their most competent guys and the dead Fed's ex-partner, Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), is on the job, but he's encountering resistance from the NYPD, who revere Frank enough to protect him.

Ray Stevenson becomes the third actor to essay the title role and he's got what's needed for the part: a steely gaze, a no-nonsense demeanor, and absolutely zero sense of humor. Punisher: War Zone is a dark motion picture - there aren't even the obligatory one-liners to provide a little comedic relief. Stevenson may be best known as Titus Pulio from the defunct HBO series Rome. He showed some charisma in that role; it is not apparent here. Both Dominic West as the badly scarred Jigsaw and Doug Hutchison as the cannibalistic Loony Bin Jim have taken lessons from Jack Nicholson's interpretation of The Joker when they would have done better mimicking Heath Ledger. They're campy and over-the-top and, as a result, not in the least bit intimidating.

Punisher: War Zone can be said to unofficially end a pretty good string of comic book superhero movies from both D.C. and Marvel. This movie is a waste of time and talent, and maybe it says something that there's not even a Stan Lee cameo. The film tries to humanize Frank by providing him with a burden of grief over the accidental shooting, but this aspect of the plot never gels and has a tacked-on feel. It can be tough to add psychology into the mix in a vigilante film, but it was successfully accomplished in The Brave One (with Jodie Foster); here, the guilt feels like a way to excuse the violence. (As in: yes, there's a lot of carnage, but at least the good guy has doubts about some of what he's doing.) It's not enough and it only makes Punisher: War Zone more gloomy. This is a dark, unpleasant movie that serves best to illustrate how masterfully the filmmakers of The Dark Knight crafted a tale that, at its core, has a share of similar themes.

Punisher: War Zone (United States/Canada, 2008)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1