“Punisher: War Zone” is far and away the best Punisher pic of the three that have been made to date. That was the least I expected from the pic. What’s encouraging is it’s also a decent action pic that adds enough flair and style to its violent proceedings to finally strike a tone that suits the character and the genre.
(If you’re new to the Punisher, check out this photogallery I wrote on his history for Metromix. If you want to know more about the making of the film, I have a story on the filmmakers and one on the actors over at Newsarama.)
The first thing this movie does right is cast Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle. Not only does Stevenson look and sound the part, but in the action sequences he moves with the confidence, poise and apparent skill that an ex-Marine like Castle would have. And that makes a big difference, compared to the goofy and limited fights of the previous Punisher movies. He also has the right touch in the story scenes. Castle’s never been much of a talker, but Stevenson for the first time on screen really evokes the character’s smoldering rage and seeming genius for dealing out death.
So be warned: there’s a reason this movie is rated R. This movie starts out with Castle in full Punisher mode, massacring criminals with just the right mix of deadly seriousness and action-movie inventiveness. There’s plenty of head splitting, blood splattering, severed limbs and brutal, bone-crunching deaths.
All of this is executed with likeable style by director Lexi Alexander. The movie looks better than you think it will, with lighting that evokes the mix of bright and muted coloring of more recent Punisher comics. The action sequences are well-staged and, unusually in an age of hyper-quick editing, easy to follow. The film also cuts away from its most cartoony violence quickly, keeping the “did that just happen?” effect without staying on screen long enough to look fake.
The film also sticks closely to the Punisher milieu and resists diverging into action movie cliché. There’s not a single car chase. Nor is there a forced relationship between the Punisher and Julie Benz’s widow of an FBI agent.
Some found what little was done with the Punisher connecting with Benz’s daughter annoying, but given the circumstances that turned Castle into the Punisher, it makes sense. Also appearing are a few cop characters, played by Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok, who get a little personality despite their limited roles. And then there’s Microchip, long an element of the comic book series, played by “Seinfeld” alumnus Wayne Knight. Knight plays Micro as a serious supporter of the Punisher’s campaign, while bringing just enough comic relief to the movie.
It’s not all good, though.
The villain of the piece is Jigsaw — who first appeared as the Punisher’s nemesis way back in Amazing Spider-Man #162. Played here by Dominic West, who appeared in “300” and starred in the excellent HBO series “The Wire,” we see his character traumatized and transformed into Jigsaw in a scene that successfully makes your skin crawl. But West’s portrayal of the character borrows a lot from Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker — one scene in the film directly evokes that performance — and it so far has been a litmus test for the audience, with some loving it and others thinking it too over the top and cartoonish. I leaned toward the latter camp, but not so much that it took much away from the movie.
Helping Jigsaw out is Doug Hutchison as “Looney Bin” Jim, Jigsaw’s insane brother. Hutchison is great at creepy and crazy — he played the liver-eating, stretching Tooms in a pair of the best episodes ever of “The X-Files” — and he in some strange way balances out Jigsaw despite being no less cartoonish and weird. So your mileage on LBJ, as he’s called, may vary.
Additionally, the plot has some major holes in it that, despite being glossed over fairly quickly, are enough to make your head hurt if you apply too much brain power to them. The most egregious for me being a plot point that involves Jigsaw seeking immunity for his crimes that, while set up early on in the script, just is too hard to swallow when it eventually pays off.
The result is a film that in some ways succeeds by exceeding the admittedly low expectations set by previous films and in other ways fails as a mainstream movie experience. But it’s important to remember that it’s not intended to be a mainstream movie experience. This is a niche picture, rated-R and intentionally limited by its concept to appeal to mostly young men who like to watch thugs and things blow up real good. Marvel seems to understand this completely, marketing this as the first Marvel Knights picture complete with its own version of the flipping pages logo at the start of the film. They also kept the budget at $35 million, an amount that seems to ensure they studio won’t lose much money even if it’s a massive flop — which it won’t be given its niche appeal.
Bottom line: If you love the Punisher of the MAX series of comics, or are a general fan of this sort of action movie, you’ll likely love this movie. If you’re a more general Punisher or Marvel fan, you probably won’t get as much out of it, and if you prefer the Punisher as a quasi-villain guest star in the all-ages Spider-Man tales of the 1970s, your money and time will be better spent elsewhere.