Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Film Appreciation - Exploding Flesh and Brain

Film Appreciation is aimed at Punisher: War Zone (2008), where Cody Hamman roots for the hero and hates the villains.

With Punisher: War Zone, which was released on my birthday in 2008 and which I saw on opening day, director Lexi Alexander delivered just the sort of "Punisher Unleashed" film that I was left craving in the wake of The Punisher in 2004. War Zone began development as a sequel to Punisher '04, but as the process went on and Punisher director Jonathan Hensleigh and star Thomas Jane departed the project, it became a separate adaptation of the Marvel Comics source material.

The screenplay by Nick Santora, who has served as a writer and executive producer on TV shows like Prison Break and Scorpion, and the writing team of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who were fresh off co-writing Iron Man when they took this gig, was heavily inspired by writer Garth Ennis's eight year run on The Punisher comics, especially the issues that were published through Marvel's MAX imprint, which allowed them to contain explicit content. Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer also took inspiration for the look of the film directly from the pages of the comic, resulting in War Zone having a beautiful, colorful visual style.

Alexander also made a wise decision in the casting of the new actor to play Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher. As far as I'm concerned, the third time was the charm - while I like Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane in the '89 Punisher and the '04 movie, Ray Stevenson in War Zone is my favorite version of the character on screen. (Note: I haven't yet watched Jon Bernthal play the character in the second season of Daredevil on Netflix.) Stevenson's Punisher is the perfect representation of the character, he looks like he stepped right off the pages and onto the screen, and his performance is dead-on accurate to how I see the character.

Not only are Stevenson's look and performance right on the money, he also does precisely what The Punisher should do: blasts his way through a multitude of criminals, taking them out in gloriously violent, brutal, bloody ways, all while wearing that iconic skull emblem on his body armor. By the time the end credits roll, The Punisher has racked up one hell of a body count.

So they got The Punisher 100% right. The violence is delightful. The movie looks gorgeous. But then comes the element that brings to mind the Dickens line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The villains. The villains are what hold me back from loving the film completely, because they're played in such an over-the-top manner that they make the 1966 Batman TV show look subtle.

When you have a vigilante antihero character who just blows away any bad guy who crosses his path, they're not able to accrue much of a rogues gallery, but one character who has been a recurring villain for The Punisher is Billy "The Beaut" Russo, a vain gangster whose face in mangled during an encounter with The Punisher, after which he takes on the nickname Jigsaw because it looks like his face has been pieced back together. While the previous two Punisher films had villains created specifically for them, War Zone brings in Jigsaw (changing his last name to Russoti in the process).

The film begins very much like the 1989 one did. Frank Castle has been killing criminals as The Punisher for five years and the police have formed a special Punisher Task Force that consists of just one police officer, in this case Dash Mihok as the awkward Martin Soap. When a mob boss avoids being brought to justice because of a mistrial manipulated by his associates, The Punisher is there to greet him at his mansion and proceeds to murder everyone in his path.

Then it diverges from the '89 opening. Billy "The Beaut" Russoti manages to escape the massacre, but not for long. The Punisher follows him to the old factory that serves as the base of his operations and ends up knocking him into a machine that grinds glass for recycling. Seeing an opportunity to cause The Beaut an interesting and agonizing death, Castle switches the machine on. It doesn't kill The Beaut, but he does get a whole lot of busted glass ground into his face. He ends up looking like something out of Hellraiser.

The Beaut/Jigsaw is played by Dominic West, who makes him a rather typical, although very temperamental, sort of mob character at first, but once he gets scarred and re-names himself Jigsaw, he turns into a total clown. Making things worse, he busts his bugnuts brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) out of the mental institution he's been locked up and they hit the streets together to build a street gang army to battle The Punisher with. These guys are cartoons, and there are moments with them that are so goofy that it makes me cringe to watch them. I love The Punisher parts of this movie, but when it cuts away to Jigsaw and Jim... It's just not for me.

Of course, The Punisher can't only be an emotionless killing machine through the whole film, there has to be some kind of heart there and something for the actor to work with. This movie has that in Castle's interactions with his "tech support" buddy Microchip (Wayne Knight), an old school character from the comics making his first screen appearance, and a subplot where Castle realizes he has made a terrible mistake. One of the people he killed while gunning down mobsters left and right was actually undercover FBI agent Donatelli. A good guy, a family man.

Information on The Punisher's origin is delivered quickly, through exposition and split second flashbacks. Frank Castle was a military man who worked his way to becoming a Special Forces instructor. Six years earlier, his wife and children were killed in a scenario just like in the comics: during a picnic in Central Park, they witnessed a mob execution and were murdered. Since he knows very well how it feels to lose a loved one, he is devastated by the thought that he has widowed Donatelli's wife Angela (Julie Benz) and left their young daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) without a father. It's a regret bad enough that he even has an existential crisis and considers giving up this life of vigilantism.

Castle tries to make amends to the family. He delivers a satchel full of cash, he gives Angela the chance to shoot him in the heart (Stephanie interrupts before she can, but it didn't look like she would anyway). It's a good thing he has his attention on them, because Jigsaw also goes after them, in search of some missing cash.

The death of Donatelli also gets the man's former partner, FBI agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon of the Brosnan James Bond films) on his trail. Budiansky joins Soap in his Task Force duties, which turn out to be rather lackluster - mainly because Soap is working with Castle on the side. When he realizes the lives of the Donatelli girls are at stake, Budiansky also lends Castle a hand. Add in Microchip's friend Carlos (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and Castle has quite a solid support team in this film, and the presence of each of these characters is a bonus.

It all builds up to an awesome extended action sequence as The Punisher raids a derelict hotel with halls and rooms packed with the army Jigsaw has assembled.

I have my problems with Punisher: War Zone, mainly some casting decisions and the choice to give those cast members free rein to be as campy as they wanted to be, but those things aside the majority of the film is a joy for me to watch. This is The Punisher. I watch a Punisher movie because I want to see the character I've read the exploits of in many comic book issues kick ass in live action, and that is exactly what Lexi Alexander and Ray Stevenson gifted me with here.

Look at the bright side: when I'm watching Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, I badly want them to be removed from the film. That's exactly what The Punisher wants to do. It makes me root for him even more than I already would have.

Punisher: War Zone left me wanting to see more films with Stevenson in the title role, but unfortunately the movie didn't do well enough at the box office to warrant the production of sequels. But at least I have this one film with a perfect Punisher in it.


  1. I'm so glad you wrote on this one. I owned one Punisher comic book growing up and Warzone brought to life the feeling I got reading it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Terena!

      - Cody

    2. It's really Noah. We use the same computer so our gmail profiles are kinda mixed up together.

  2. When I first saw the 2004 Punisher, I was 12 and bored out of my wits. When War Zone came out, I was 16 and ignored it thinking it'll be as bad as the 2004 version.

    Now I'm 24, just saw War Zone after reading this review and I feel like giving my 16 year old self a slap at the head for missing this.

    Thanks for the cover! It made my day and my night!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the movie, it's great to know I played a part in your decision to give it a chance.

      - Cody