Director: Lexi Alexander Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West & Julie Benz Synopsis: After hunting down and killing hundreds of violent criminals, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, faces his most deadly foe yet, Jigsaw Rating: 18 Run time: 103 minutes
Rarely have I used the word “depressing” to describe a superhero film. But here, in Punisher: War Zone, it feels essential. The dark, grim underbelly of New York is exposed to its fullest, with criminals running amok and the only person to stop them is the morally dubious “hero” The Punisher. Ray Stevenson has replaced Thomas Jane as the titular hero in this 2009 reboot, while Lexi Alexander has replaced Jonathan Hensleigh in the director’s chair and everyone involved has done their best to distance themselves from the 2004 version of the character.
Unfortunately, their attempt to distance themselves from Thomas Jane’s turn as the overly violent vigilante has not necessarily had the desired effect. Yes, things are darker here, and it is possibly the darkest any mainstream superhero film has dared to be. And yes, it is debatable as to who is the better Punisher, with Stevenson going for a less is more approach as he guns down bad guys in a way not too dissimilar from the original Terminator film. But are things any better?
Certainly, Marvel and, more to the point, their Marvel Knight’s brand have gone for a mature approach here, and have attempted to step away from the lighter films on offer at the time. As such, Punisher: War Zone is one of the most violent comic book films I have ever laid eyes on, and is a far cry from the type of superhero films we currently see. Violence it seems, outweighs plot, and comes at the expense of other things normally associated with films, such as characterisation and fun.
As the violence grows ever more OTT, so too does the acting. Dominic West’s turn as big bad Jigsaw has all the hallmarks of a villain gone mad, but does little to make the character interesting. Likewise, Dough Hutchinson plays West’s onscreen brother and fellow psychopath Loony Bin Jim, another turn where subtlety seems to have been thrown out the window in favour trying to be as crazy as possible.
Fortunately, the film does have Colin Salmon to call upon, dodgy American accent and all. Salmon brings levity to any role he plays, and his turn as Agent Budiansky is one of the better elements of the film. Alongside Salmon is Dash Mihok as Detective Soap, an NYPD detective who is assigned to the “Punisher Task Force” and his role brings some fleeting moments of joy to an otherwise grim film.
As for The Punisher himself, Ray Stevenson has all the hallmarks of a trained killer as he expertly takes down bad buys while rarely breaking into a sweat. Whether Stevenson is the best on screen Punisher is debatable, but he is probably the closest to the character in spirit and I imagine this is how die-hard fans always wanted him to be portrayed on screen.
The film is itself is a rather disjointed affair. Fun is rarely had, and the violence is quite sickening at times, with one wondering whether all the blood spatter were truly needed. As a striking contradiction, the performances, mainly from the villains, seem so ridiculously over the top that they would not be out of place in a children’s TV show. The plot barely exists and is a fairly simple tale of revenge, while the finale has been done a million times better in the likes of Dredd and The Raid, even if those films were released after the fact.
Unfortunately, three films in and we seem no closer to having a really good film version of The Punisher. Dolph Lundgren’s 80’s straight to video version has built up a cult following, while Thomas Jane’s 2004 effort has its fans. Punisher: War Zone may have the best version of the character, but that seems to come at the cost of what else makes a film watchable.
In summary: A poor, depressing effort all round. Punisher: War Zone does little with its source material, and will likely leave a sour taste in most viewers mouths afterwards.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Flashback/Backslide’s Marvel blogathon.