As a long time fan of the original “Punisher” comics and even the later Ennis version of the “Punisher” books, it was understandable that I grew rather excited over the release of the 1989 flick of the same name starring Dolph Lundgren. If you have watched this version before, you can understand as well that I was highly disappointed! Years passed and the franchise fell dormant until 2004 when it was decided to bring the man in black back to life once more.
This time they cast Thomas Jane in the title roll and fans were happier. Of course, they spoiled this by casting John Travolta as the main nemesis for the film and with that in mind, this incarnation of “The Punisher” was a marked improvement of character, yet there were still problems. Mr. Castle was too forgiving, John Travolta was laughable. Overall the effort left a bad taste in my film goer’s mouths. As 2008 clocked in and word of yet another film in the name of the comic, with yet another star headlining the role, it was scoffed from the start. This time around however, things had changed, and changed for the better.
Many websites the world over are decrying “The Punisher War Zone” as pure crap. Mindless, overly violent and gory, all style and no substance; in other words, not “The Dark Knight”. As the opening flurry of bullets, knives and decapitations set forth, I soon realized that the naysayers were wrong; what we were being treated to was the substance of the original comics. Revenge and violence, pure and simple; The Punisher has no need of forgiveness or anything of the sort. He needs the death of his wrongdoers. “The Punisher War Zone” captures this philosophy quite well.
There is not a lot of depth to the film, but this is the type of action/comic book film that doesn’t require much. In the previous two failed attempts at launching this vigilante vehicle, both movies focused on the deaths of Castle’s family and became mired in his origin story. This slowed the films down and added weight that wasn’t necessarily needed. In “War Zone” they glaze over this sequence, figuring that the viewer is now familiar considering this is the third reboot. With a brief flashback and a quick visit to the cemetery, the matter is put to bed and we’re taken back to the meat and potatoes; death. This is where the movie shines.
The opening sequence is both hilarious in it’s over the top nature and thrilling in its mindless carnage. It manages to set the tone for the rest of the film, and sets it accurately. We’re not being given a thoughtful Frank Castle, we’re being given a death machine. At nearly ten minutes of film time, I soon realized that we had yet to even hear the character speak! Lending to this steely grim visage is Ray Stevenson, the new man cast in the role of Frank Castle. Stevenson excels over the past two actors to try on the heavy combat boots of the vigilante. He evokes fear and matches his inked counterpart in the pages of Ennis’s comic quite well. With few lines to speak, his acting is left to action sequences and brooding stares and it works for him. When he does speak, it is effective and passable.
As we passed from action sequences to speaking moments, the movie began to bog down a bit. Apparent that this was not the main focus of the film, there were loose attempts made at drama and engaging story lines, however they felt slow and slightly forced in the shadow of the opening fracas that got the blood pumping. Granted they do not dwell on these moments for long, so they are forgivable. Other than Dominic West and Doug Hutcheson as our two main protagonists, the rest of the named cast is mostly underused.
Julie Benz, while lovely as a brunette, has very little work with. The plot of her mistakenly killed agent husband at the hands of Frank Castle fit as did Castle’s attempt at restitution, but other than shedding a few tears, they didn’t use her much. The film focuses near solely on the conflict between castle and Dominic West and Doug Hutcheson’s mob villains. Thankfully they handled the parts well and made it easy to be entertained. West’s ‘Jigsaw’ was highly over the top, but it fit well; he’s playing a comic book villain after all.
“Punisher: War Zone” is not a thinking man’s film. This is a movie that you go to turn off your brain, enjoy some action and laugh. The movie does not take itself overly serious at all which allows it to flow well. There is just enough meat here to give it a plot and keep it from being nothing but a two hour long special effects mess. While movies concerning other vigilantes are quite excellent in their serious and dark angles, there is still plenty of room at the theater for a rock em’ sock em’ anti hero; luckily for us, Ray Stevenson fits the bill.