A film review by Craig J. Koban
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
2008, R, 107 mins.
2008, R, 107 mins.
Frank Castle: Ray Stevenson / Billy/Jigsaw: Dominic West /
Loony Bin: Doug Hutchison / Angela: Julie Benz / Micro: Wayne
Is there a more politically incorrect comic book “hero” than Frank Castle, aka ‘The Punisher’?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.