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THE PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) *** movie review by COOP

Posted on December 9th, 2008
Posted on December 9th, 2008


As I write this, I’m thumbing through my old “Punisher” comic books. I have some pretty valuable ones here: “Punisher #2,” “Punisher Limited Series #5,” “Punisher War Journal #1.” To say I’m a casual fan of the character is a bit of an understatement. “The Punisher” began as a minor-league villain of “Spider-Man,” quickly becoming one of the most popular characters in Marvel Comics. While the concept of a costumed, gun-toting vigilante might seem dated in a post 9-11 world, it’s gratifying to find a filmmaker (Lexi Alexander) who understands the dark-yet-campy tone behind this popular anti-hero.

To clarify, this is yet another standalone reboot and NOT a sequel to the 2004 Jonathan Hensleigh film starring Thomas Jane. After losing his family in a mob shootout, Special Forces instructor Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) turns super-vigilante and proceeds to wipe out organized crime in the New York City underworld. While hunting the vile Donatelli Family, Frank slaughters the majority of the mobsters and throws cruel Billy “The Beaut” Donatelli into a glass bottle recycler. Billy survives and returns as the deformed arch-villain “Jigsaw.” He breaks his Hannibal Lecter-wannabe brother “Looney Bin Jim” (Doug Hutchinson) out of the Asylum and the two recruit every gangster in town to take Castle down. Meanwhile, Castle tries to protect the family of a slain undercover fed from the clutches of Jigsaw’s crew.

Compared to the two previous Punisher films, this one has the highest entertainment value but also requires the highest suspension of disbelief. In this version, Castle walks the open streets, armed to the teeth without alarming citizens or the police. Why? Because this Punisher has an uneasy endorsement from local law enforcement; plus the citizens see him as a savior who exists in the same weird world as Spider-Man, The X-Men, Iron Man and The Hulk. Apparently to New Yorkers, The Punisher walking in and out of the subway stops with guns is of no big concern. Keeping that in mind, The Punisher has gone round for round with both villains and superheroes alike in the comics so impossibilities are not beyond the character. Because of this, I accepted these unlikely plot points that I’m sure many critics and audiences will scoff at, but they shouldn’t. This is a comic book movie, not “The English Patient.”

Ray Stevenson, although pretty stiff, makes for an ideal Punisher. He’s got the perfect look and is more intimidating than Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane combined. Most of his stilted dialogue probably comes from the challenge of shedding his English accent, but it matters little. He communicates far better with his actions and silent brooding. Dominic West and Doug Hutchinson chew up the scenery with their over-the-top performances as New York mobster psychopaths. While West goes for his own version of The Joker from “Batman,” Hutchinson draws upon his long history of playing frightening villains (his most famous being the slimy prison guard Percy from “The Green Mile”). Both compliment each other with malicious glee as they terrorize every poor soul they encounter.

Keeping with the spirit of not taking itself to seriously, this “Punisher” is the most violent and gory version yet. Director Lexi Alexander didn’t make a great movie, but at least she understood how to treat the material. The 1989 “Punisher” had Castle (Lundgren) as an underworld Rambo fighting corny 1980’s style ninjas. The already dated 2004 version miserably failed an attempt at serious filmmaking by portraying Castle (Jane) as a grieving ex-cop in Miami who preferred to manipulate his enemies than shoot them. This 2008 version portrays The Punisher as a scary slasher. He brazenly raids mobster lairs and butchers anyone present in the most brutal ways possible. He’s a monster who’s lost his humanity and finds a mere shred of it when he feels compelled to save a helpless mother and daughter. That’s The Punisher as he ought to be. Finally.

Marvel Knights, the lower-budgeted branch of Marvel Films, marks “Punisher: War Zone” as their first release and I hope the company uses the label as a launching point for films based on some of the lesser Marvel Comics heroes. I expect a darker, grittier version of “Daredevil” from Knights in the future along with cult favorites like “Deadpool” (soon to be played by Ryan Reynolds in next year’s “Wolverine” feature). While this “Punisher” is a step in the right direction, I implore filmmakers to approach these comic book films with a vision that does the properties justice. While Alexander’s film pleased me, it probably won’t please other fans and will downright alienate critics and casual moviegoers. Hollywood’s got to find a happy medium before this genre falls into ridiculous high camp. Case and point… In 1995, Warner Bros. mistakenly handed over the “Batman” franchise to director Joel Schumacher. Instead of taking the Caped Crusader down a darker path (As Christopher Nolan did in “Batman Begins”), Schumacher enraged fans by turning “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin” into goofy, neon-colored eyesores. Let’s not go there again.

Check out this fun, ultra-gory trailer for “The Punisher: War Zone”…

Compare it to the trailer to the lousy, wimpy 2004 version…

And now finally to the trailer of the 1989 version (which I actually kinda have a soft spot for)…

Here’s The Punisher’s first appearance in “The Amazing Spiderman #129” in 1974. The character did not receive his own unlimited series until 1987…

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