Benjamin has been reviewing films for sixteen years and has seen more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Punisher: War Zone is an action thriller film released in 2008 and is based on the Marvel comics character of the same name created by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru and John Romita Sn. The film is the third adaptation of the character and is a reboot following the 2004 release The Punisher. The film stars Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Wayne Knight, Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok and was directed by Lexi Alexander. The film follows widowed vigilante Frank Castle (aka The Punisher) continue his one-man war against organised crime, particularly the schemes of the crime boss known as Jigsaw who has a personal vendetta against Castle. It was the last Punished film before the rights returned to Marvel Studios and the character then featured in his own TV series. The film was released to a mostly negative reception from critics and the film bombed at the box office, with global earnings of just $10.1 million. However, among fans of the Punisher comics, the film has been hailed as the closest interpretation of the character seen on the big screen so far.
What's it about?
After witnessing his wife and children gunned down in a mob shootout, former Marine Frank Castle has now dedicated himself to fighting organised crime as bloodthirsty vigilante The Punisher. Aided by his armourer and tech genius Microchip, Frank has spent the last five years becoming an almost mythical figure in the criminal underworld. Launching an assault on the compound of Don Gaitano Cesare, Castle manages to kill everyone except Cesare's right-hand man Billy "The Beaut" Russotti who escapes to a nearby recycling plant. His attack also ruins the stakeout of Detective Martin Soap as well as claiming the life of undercover FBI agent Nicky Donatelli.
After dispatching Russotti in a glass crushing machine, Castle becomes wracked with guilt over Donatelli's death and decides to make reparations to his widow Angela and daughter Grace. He even threatens to retire but he soon realises that this might not be an option. It emerges that Russotti was not killed but has been horribly disfigured and is now attempting to take over the mob himself. Realising that the Donatelli's could be in danger, Frank must once again take up arms and bring the battle to his foes before any more innocent lives are lost.
Frank Castle / The Punisher
Linus Lieberman / Microchip
BIlly Russotti / Jigsaw
Agent Paul Budiansky
Loony Bin Jim
Detective Martin Soap
Nick Santora, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway*
Release Date (UK)
6th February, 2009
Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
What's to like?
On the surface, Punisher: War Zone is another loud and dim-witted action film featuring Marvel's most trigger-happy troubleshooter but for once, there are some grounds for optimism. The film has a noticeably darker tone than the previous effort that is more in keeping with the comic book origins of the character, especially more recent series such as the 2004 run by Garth Ennis. The film also sees the character become more ruthless and hard-edged, finally revealing the darker aspects of Castle's psyche as well as his particular niche for brutality. The action may be generic but for once, it feels like we have an actual Punisher on screen.
Stevenson, who has since shaped himself into the king of British B-grade gangster films, is well cast as Castle as he brings the requisite physicality to the role - even if his performance isn't the best. West is much better as his nemesis Jigsaw, a swaggering and vicious mobster hell-bent on vengeance as is Knight, who is cast perfectly as Frank's unlikely partner in crime Microchip. I liked the film's narrative which brought a shade of grey to Frank's black-and-white world and while the production lacks the spit-and-polish of its MCU brethren, that actually suits the film just fine. This is not a superhero film in the traditional Marvel sense so anyone fed up of the all-conquering entertainment juggernaut won't be too annoyed.
- To date, the film has the unwelcome distinction of being the lowest grossing Marvel film so far. It has earned less than the lukewarm spin-off to Daredevil, Elektra and even the notorious flop Howard The Duck.
- The film was the first of just two to be released under the Marvel Knights banner, a sub-division of Marvel that planned to release more adult-orientated films. The only other film released by this studio was Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.
- After this film was released, the rights to the character went back to Marvel Studios who later adapted the character for a TV show on Netflix. While Stevenson was now sadly out of a job, he would later appear in the MCU as Volstagg in the Thor series.
What's not to like?
It becomes apparent quite quickly that this film is not a quality product, mainly due to the lack of star power and an obviously stringent budget. Despite the film's nihilistic tone and excessive use of violence, it just feels like a lukewarm TV special. It doesn't do proper justice to the comics by generally skirting around the moral conundrum of this trigger-happy vigilante and turning the character into a more realistic version than that seen in the comics, enormous skull motif serving as both a symbol and a tactical choice. This could have been any action movie and it's a disappointing use of the Punisher licence.
And that's kinda the problem. You can look at the character as both a traditional action hero but to me, I always felt that the comics were a parody of such roles. His macabre one-liners, remorseless nature and seemingly unstoppable propensity for shocking levels of violence feels like a pastiche of characters like John Matrix from Commando or Escape From New York's Snake Plissken. The Punisher is an old-school throwback to those early action film roles but in today's world, he is fairly uninspired and one-dimensional. The film somehow sanitises the bitter darkness behind the character and turns him into just another action lead. The comics aren't about the violence or bloodshed but the inner turmoil behind the motivations, the grief that long turned into blind rage. The Punisher himself is certainly no hero but watching this film, you'd get that impression.
Should I watch it?
It's hard not to compare this film with the more expensive and better quality seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which debuted the same year with Iron Man) but even so, Punisher: War Zone still feels like a let-down. Despite a more accurate tone and some decent casting choices, the film is disappointingly generic from an action viewpoint and lacks the visceral punch and emotional depth of the comics. If nothing else, it makes Jon Bernthal's portrayal of Castle in the TV series all the better.
Great For: undemanding action junkies, anyone who disliked the 2004 film, Marvel Studios who regained the rights after this film's release
Not So Great For: fans of the character, fans of the MCU, anyone hoping this film would go all-in on the adult nature of the comics
What else should I watch?
Technically, this film marks the third attempt at a Punisher movie as I said at the beginning. The first one, also called The Punisher, was released in 1989 and starred Dolph Lundgren as Castle albeit on without the familiar skull motif and many of the character's more recognisable traits. An ultra-low budget flop, the character didn't really get a proper cinematic outing until 2004's release which saw Thomas Jane take up the role against John Travolta's vengeful mob boss. Notable for the perfect casting of Kevin Nash as Castle's recurring nemesis The Russian, the film flopped thanks to the inexperience of director Jonathan Hensleigh (who also co-wrote the film) and an aggressively bleak atmosphere that made for a depressing experience overall.
Punisher: War Zone had the misfortune to be released just eight months after the enormous success of Iron Man who not only introduced audiences into the wide and varied worlds of the MCU but also proved that comic book adaptations didn't have to be low-budget and crummy. With fantastic effects, a family-friendly tone and a career-reviving performance from Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, the film paved the way for billion-dollar juggernauts like Avengers Assemble, Age Of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther and of course, the highest grossing movie of all time Avengers: Endgame. Against such cinematic greatness, this film looks even weaker nowadays.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox