The Punisher is a unique character in the world of Marvel Comics. He’s a vigilante armed to the teeth, a character who emerged in the shadow of Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies without superpowers unless you count an arsenal as a superpower. Even before the modern superhero movie boom, The Punisher was one of the few characters in the Marvel stable that could grace the screen without the need for CGI. Whether it was the 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren or the 2004 film starring Thomas Jane, the film adaptations of The Punisher focused extensively on the internal pain that drives Frank Castle into dedicating his life to becoming a massively violent vigilante. It’s a mistaken perspective on the character, as the reality is that Frank Castle is so engulfed in his own grief and trauma that he can’t do anything but inflict pain on others, many whom often are deserving of his wrath. The best portrayal of Frank Castle in filmed media is 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson and directed by Lexi Alexander. It’s a movie that revels in graphic violence but focuses instead on the pain and suffering that Frank Castle inflicts.
In Lexi Alexander’s gonzo comic book insanity, Frank Castle (Stevenson) is carrying out his one-man war on the mob. While taking out an entire mob party, Castle brutally kills a number of mobster with extremely violent shooting, stabbings, and a punch that flies right through the skull of one unfortunate criminal. In the subsequent chase with those who survived and fled, Castle gravely wounds and disfigures Billy (Dominic West), who becomes reassembled and reborn as Jigsaw. In the melee, though, Castle kills Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari), an undercover agent. For the first time on screen, Frank Castle must deal with doubt about his violent mission to eradicate crime, and he has to confront that doubt in the saddened faces of Donatelli’s widow Angela (Julie Benz) and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas). Donatelli’s old partner Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) has come into track down Frank Castle, though he finds that office Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) might’ve not been forthright in his attempts to apprehend the vigilante. As Jigsaw and his demented brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) unleash a gang war to seize control of New York City, it’s up to The Punisher and some unsteady alliances to do what must be done.
The violence of Punisher: War Zone is simply over the top. It’s sometimes ghastly comic as the blood splats and other times it’s shockingly grotesque. At once the violence of War Zone can feed our basest desires for bloodlust while also illustrating the horrific and ugly nature of violence. It’s a rare balancing act that you don’t see too often these days, but one that is necessary for a character such as The Punisher whose extrajudicial killings are both thrilling and horrific.
Punisher: War Zone is the lone film released under the Marvel Knights label, an intended alternate subheading for more adult oriented films under the Marvel label. Punisher: War Zone was a notable flop, greeted coldly by critics and audiences. It didn’t help the film that there was all sorts of unfounded scuttlebutt about the creative struggles going on behind the scenes, and the film was delayed because of that. And yet it’s stature has grown over the years because it’s such an insane work of cinema. Lexi Alexander throws everything into this bonkers piece of action filmmaking. You get brutal fist fights. You get intense shootouts. You get parkour criminals blown to bits with a bazooka. And the twisted gonzo attitude of the film is further highlighted by the neon-infused visuals that amplify the insane violence.
Finally, Punisher: War Zone lands on 4K Ultra HD and the film’s demented personality has never looked better. The film’s highly stylized look bursts off the screen with the stunning colors that swirl and the darkness that occupies the frame as much of the film takes place at night. The Punisher continues to live on after Stevenson’s lone turn as Frank Castle thanks to Jon Bernthal’s take on the role in the Netflix series. But the latest incarnation of the character makes the same mistakes of the past, focusing so intently on Castle’s past trauma and how it informs his violent tendencies today. The only movie to get the moral and ethical complexity of The Punisher and his warped moral code is Punisher: War Zone, and it’s a wild ride that is unmatched in the world of comic book movies. Who knew that something as ugly as the brutal violence of Lexi Alexander’s film could look so damn good.
Punisher: War Zone
A hyper-violent, hyper-stylized comic book movie, Punisher: War Zone finds the moral complexity of Frank Castle’s vigilante quest while presenting a wild, colorful comic book movie that entertains from start to finish.