A film review by Craig J. Koban

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE jj

2008, R, 107 mins.

Frank Castle: Ray Stevenson / Billy/Jigsaw: Dominic West / Loony Bin: Doug Hutchison / Angela: Julie Benz / Micro: Wayne Knight

Directed by Lexi Alexander / Written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, based on the Marvel comic books

Is there a more politically incorrect comic book “hero” than Frank Castle, aka ‘The Punisher’?  

I defy anyone out there to name another more amoral and sadistic creation of the medium.  Created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, this Marvel Comics eradicator is everything but a super hero.  As long as you follow all three live action adaptations of the vengeful one packing serious heat (see 1989’s Dolph Lundgren version, 2004’s much better Thomas Jane version, and now WAR ZONE) it’s clear that Castle's main motivation as a "hero" (I am using that term ever so loosely) is to punish his adversaries in the most disturbing and stomach churning manners possible.  It’s depressing and sad statement, because in our age of vomit-inducing spectacles of the macabre and horrific, The Punisher, it could be said, fits right in. 

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is pure, unfiltered, and simplistic murder/gun pornography.  If it is not the most dreary, dark, disturbingly graphic and bloody comic book film ever, then I certainly am not privy to what is.  The ways that the “hero” dispenses with the villains in the film will definitely appeal to those that like their action films heavy (and I mean heavy) on bone crunching, guts spewing, and brain and internal organs spattering glory.  The filmmakers obviously put a .357 Magnum to the heads of the MPAA and convinced them that this was worthy of an R and not and NC-17.  When will the ratings board take a much needed reality pill and start rating films as hard-core with its carnage like this one with a more adult oriented label?  During the screening of the film I noticed a father and a five-year old son sitting behind me and I wanted to open up a serious can of Punisher whoop-ass on the cretin for thinking that this was a child appropriate adventure film.

Some comic heroes hit the bad guys hard: The Punisher is another sadistic figure altogether.  Much like DC Comics other dark anti-hero, Batman, Frank Castle suffered a similar personal tragedy when he witnessed the brutal slaying of his family.  Yes, Bruce Wayne definitely took the law book and threw it out to wage his war on crime and used his share of morally questionable methods.  Yet, Castle seems more akin to going that much further: it’s one thing to fight injustice, but Castle wants to crush it with swift and fierce force, using everything from multiple killings, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, and threats of deplorable torture.  All of these methods are just and sound to Castle, which makes his one-man-war on crime all the more cruel and unsavory.  

Yet, he not called The Pacifier…he is aptly named The Punisher, and I will give WAR ZONE initial props for sticking to its creative guns.  This is not a sanitized, watered down, PG-13 handling of the source material.  Rather, WAR ZONE completely ups the ante of the previous incarnations of the extreme vigilante.  His world is grungy, depressing, and without any real emotional buy-in from the audience, other than to see him kill and kill as much as humanly possible.  So, yes, WAR ZONE achieves its modest status quo - it does feature Castle shooting, burning, stabbing, punching, kicking, and exploding his way through baddies like he was trying to make a fashion statement. 

Much like this year’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, WAR ZONE is not a direct sequel to the 2004 PUNISHER starring Thomas Jane (which I marginally recommended).  Instead, this is a thinly disguised reboot: We have a new writing team, new director (Lexi Alexander, who took over after filmmaker John Dahl decided not to helm it), and, most significantly, a new lead actor in the part, British actor Ray Stevenson, best known for his role playing Titus Pullo in the HBO series ROME.  There is no real suggestion made to the previous film in any way, plus we are giving a new origin or sorts explaining Castle’s transformation from decorated army man to a mass murderer of mobsters (done in a swift flashback form).  This film does not have time for exposition; it throws viewers head-on right from the beginning into an orgy of bullets ripping throw dozen upon dozen of evildoers.  In short, Castle's style down pat. 

The story for WAR ZONE is pure DEATH WISH.  Frank “The Punisher” Castle enters the film going after an entire mansion of mob goons…and he slaughters everyone, even some of the mobster wives.  There is one major problem with his self-imposed mission: He has accidentally killed an undercover Federal agent, which causes Castle to do some serious soul searching, not to mention making him re-evaluate whether or not serial killing bad men and women is worth it.  As the guilt begins to eat away at him, he decides that the right thing to do is to protect the dead agent’s wife (Julie Benz) and her young daughter.  The two will need some serious protection, seeing as a couple of local mob enforcers want them both dead. 

The first mobster in question is named Billy Russoti, who later redubs himself Jigsaw (Dominic West).  You see, Billy has one of those obligatory “hero fights villain, battles villain, and leaves villain left for dead and horribly disfigured” confrontations.  Whereas Batman essentially created the Joker in the comics by dropping him into a vat of nasty chemicals that turned his skin pasty white, The Punisher went out of his way to put Billy in a vast glass crushing machine where his body is chaotically thrown about with hundreds of pieces of glass slicing through him.  Frank unfortunately makes the cardinal super hero blunder by thinking that Billy is left for dead, but Billy did not die, thanks to a life saving surgery that includes what appears to be the stitching of various types of skins to his already horribly disfigured face.  Billy emerges as a hideous creature that looks like a combination of Leatherface and Frankenstein’s monster.  Looking at himself in the mirror, Billy establishes his new criminal persona of Jigsaw due to his patchy plastic surgery job and decides to get some serious comeuppance against Castle. 

Meanwhile, a former partner of the slain undercover Fed named Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) decides to join NYPD’s clandestine “Punisher Task Force” that is attempting to bring Castle to justice for his murders.  His job is a bit tough, seeing as many on the force secretly admire Castle's form of justice serving.  As the force looks at apprehending Castle, Jigsaw has made some moves of his own to take The Punisher down as well.  First, he breaks his brother Loony Bin Bill (a very loony Doug Hutchinson) out of a mental institution to assist him (Loony Bill more than deserves his name, especially after we witness him tearing out an orderly’s kidney with his bare hands and feasting on it...yuck!).  Beyond that, Jigsaw decides to enlist help in the form of a squadron of mixed-race gang members to serve as his personal army versus Castle.  When Jigsaw gets his hands on the wife and child that Castle swore to protect, then you kind of know that no army will be able to effectively face off against the one-man killing squad that is Castle.

If you want sadomasochistic massacres galore, then WAR ZONE more than fits the bill.  This film in no way shape or form is shy of finding sickening ways of depicting its protagonist murdering people.  Hmmm…let me get out my note pad here:  In the film you'll see:

1.   A man getting his kidney ripped out and turned into an impromptu snack by one of the cannibalistic villains.  Whoops...mentioned that already.

2.  The Punisher shoving a chair leg through a man’s skull via the eye socket.

3.  The Punisher stabbing and impaling people with a variety of sharp instruments thrown into various areas of the torso, head, legs, etc..

4.  The Punisher blowing up a man with a rocket launcher (in one of the film’s more darkly funny moments).

5.  The Punisher decapitating a few men and punching one man in the face so hard that it explodes in a splash of blood, brain matter, and snot.

6.  The Punisher shooting a goon at point blank range with a shotgun (without a cutaway).

7.  And finally - in one moment that would certainly make The Transporter blush with envy, Castle suspends himself from a chandelier, spins himself like a top, and machine gun blasts his way though numerous baddies.

The film also takes great joy in the sound effects: When bullets, knives, and other tools of death make contact, the speakers swell with the ooey-gooey splattering sounds of all kinds.  At least WAR ZONE is inventive with coming up with new ways of making people getting killed sound as disgusting as possible. 

Yet, beyond the film’s obvious inclinations towards being a B-grade, grindhouse exploitation flick (it never hides behind any sanctimoniously false facades here folks, which is ironically refreshing), there is not much else to really recommend here in WAR ZONE.  The plot is bare bones and lacks any really compelling angles, which is pretty much hindered by the fact that any effort at storytelling and character development takes a huge backseat to the film’s gory mayhem.  The only thing that could have perhaps made this comic book film more compelling would have been in the handling of the two main antagonists, but Dominic West and Doug Hutchinson play their respective characters over-the-top to the point of farce.  Instead of being thoroughly creepy, slimy, and intoxicatingly scary, Jigsaw is essentially reduced to a carnival attraction when he should have been a more lethal and intimidating opponent for the hero.  Aside from one nifty fight sequence between Castle and the fairly dexterous and human flesh hungry Loony Bill, there is never once a sense that the hero will be overcome by the villains: they simply lack an intimidating edge.  This is also not assisted by the fact that West and Hutchinson enunciate every line with an annoying Italian-wiseguy inflection that becomes utterly teeth-grating as the film progresses.  Usually the Brits are stellar with accents other than their own, but the Yorkshire-born West here falls flat on his heavily made-up face here. 

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is the very first film produced under the new moniker of "Marvel Knights", which has been recently established for making comic book films of a more mature and adult oriented level.  “Mature” is hardly a descriptor that I would use for this film because - at face value - the filmmakers feel that mature equals a lot of repetitive violence and gruesome sadism.  This film is the complete antithesis of the PG-13 rated THE DARK KNIGHT, which offered the most mature and intriguing treatment of similarly tormented comic vigilante to the point where it achieved elements of sad tragedy.  By comparison, it’s really hard to invest in Frank Castle in any meaningful way, perhaps because he does not fight injustice to inspire good in others, but rather to fulfill his own selfish and obsessive compulsions.  Ray Stevenson is a good actor, and he certainly infuses Castle with a steely-eyed determination and fist clenched ruthlessness (he looks more like the comic Punisher that any other incarnation), but beyond his façade there is not much to Castle, other than killing…and more killing…and then even more killing.  As stated, WAR ZONE fits the bill as a blood drenched love ballad to one man’s homicidal rampages.  As a brainless slasher film, it’s a modest achievement.  Beyond that, this film is a lifeless, joyless, and dramatically inert comic book entertainment.

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