Underappreciated Comic Movie Showcase: Punisher War Zone

I enjoyed a pretty great haul for my birthday yesterday. My girlfriend Hillary gave me socks (I go through an alarming number of these), a Dairy Queen ice cream cake, a copy of Peter Biskind’s Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced Hollywood (I have a weakness for trashy Hollywood memoirs, and Biskind never disappoints), Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (how come more people didn’t see this?), and one of the most criminally underappreciated comic-to-film adaptations of all time…Punisher: War Zone. The fact that I already didn’t own this movie on DVD is a bit embarrassing, because I think I’ve seen it three times already. It’s easily the best of the three Punisher movies, although that’s not really saying much. It tanked pretty hard at the box office, thanks to a combination of awful reviews and a cast with very little marquee value. I sadly missed it in the theatre; it didn’t play anywhere near me, and when Hillary and I were in Toronto for Christmas of 2008, we opted for Slumdog Millionaire instead, to my eternal regret. 

I’m not going to make an argument that Punisher: War Zone is a faithful adaptation of the comic or anything. No one’s going to accuse me of being a huge Punisher fan—I liked the character’s old Amazing Spider-Man appearances as an occasional supporting badass, I enjoyed Garth Ennis’s ultraviolent interpretation, and I’m loving the ridiculousness of the current Franken-Castle arc by Rick Remender and Tony Moore, but I don’t generally go out of my way to read about the character. In fact, I would recommend War Zone more for fans of insanely excessive Reagan-era action films like Commando or Rambo: First Blood Part II rather than a faithful page-to-screen translation.

Punisher: War Zone isn’t really a sequel to either the 1989 Dolph Lundgren direct-to-video interpretation or the 2004 Thomas Jane stinkbomb, nor is it concerned with rebooting the franchise or whatever. The Punisher, AKA Frank Castle, is a guy whose family was killed by the mob, so now he wears a skull and kills bad guys 24-7, and that’s all you need to know. This time around, the title character is played by Ray Stevenson, better known as Titus Pullo on HBO’s short-lived but vastly entertaining Rome series. There isn’t a lot of range to this performance, but really, how much do you need? Stevenson looks like he basically wants to throttle everyone around him all the time, which is about right I guess. Castle’s war on crime eventually brings him up against a vain, preening mob boss played by another welcome HBO face, Dominic West (McNutty from The Wire!). Castle drops the guy into some sort of bottle-recycling contraption, but he survives and is reborn as Jigsaw, a leather-faced creep bent on revenge. Jigsaw busts his even crazier brother, Loony Bin Jim (another cult favourite—Doug Hutchison, who you might remember as Eugene Victor Tooms from a couple of X-Files episodes, or more recently as Horace Goodspeed from Lost’s Dharma Initiative), out of an asylum to help dispatch the Punisher. Castle’s thinking about hanging up the skull-shirt once and for all after accidentally killing an undercover police officer, but when Jigsaw and his bro threaten the dead cop’s wife and kid, the Punisher finds it within himself to kill again. And again, and again, and…well, you get the idea.

Directed by Lexi Alexander, Punisher: War Zone is a surprisingly beautiful movie, given the lurid subject matter. It’s shot in an eye-catching pallet of vivid primary colours, in a tip of the hat to the movie’s comic book origins. There are nods to several of the comic’s incarnations as well—the Punisher employs hapless detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) as his inside man in the police department, while utilizing the technological skills of his pal Microchip (played by Newman himself, Wayne Knight!). Unlike the previous two Punisher films, though, War Zone refuses to take itself too seriously; the tone is very tongue-in-cheek without totally veering into silliness. West and Hutchison appear to be having a blast, hamming it up to beat the band (the scene where they travel around the city recruiting gangs of ethnic stereotypes with a rabble-rousing speech—in front of a flapping American flag, no less—is worth the price of admission). Any movie that features a Parkour-based gang, one with a hilarious name like the Urban Free Flow Gang, is clearly not out to win any Oscars.

Did I mention the violence, by the way? This is possibly the most gleefully gory movie since Starship Troopers. Castle dispatches his enemies with rocket launchers, chair legs, and good ol’ fashioned shotgun blasts to the face. Loony Bin Jim appears to disembowel and maybe even partly devour a hospital orderly with his bare hands, and the origin of Jigsaw involves a whole lotta broken glass being mashed into Dominic West’s face. If you’ve got a weak stomach, maybe you might want to skip this movie altogether, but if you have a taste for cartoonish, borderline NC-17 mayhem, you’ll have a blast. Might I recommend a few drinks to enchance the experience? And, if you’re ever faced with the same choice as me—Slumdog Millionaire vs. Punisher: War Zone—please, don’t make the same mistake I did. I mean, does Slumdog Millionaire have a Parkour guy getting blown to pieces mid-leap by a rocket launcher? I don’t think so!