THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! Finally, Mercifully, Someone Got The Punisher Right in ‘War Zone’

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If only there were some kind of omen to indicate that things might go poorly…

Now we come to the end of The Punisher saga. Where the other two efforts (1989 and 2004) were never able to capture the character properly, Lexi Alexander’s 2008 interpretation, Punisher: War Zone, not only has the best understanding of the character, the film avoids all the pitfalls that afflicted the first two attempts. Even though Punisher: War Zone gets so much right, it was a critical and commercial flop, the lowest grossing Marvel film to date. The film’s disappointing box office had more to do with previous interpretations of the character than what appears on screen. Having been burned by prior takes on the character, I avoided War Zone in theaters only to be pleasantly surprised when I finally saw it on video.

Wisely avoiding the tedious nature of the origin story, Punisher: War Zone opens with a Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) assault on a mob mansion. In the aftermath of the melee, the Punisher tracks down Billy Russoti (Dominic West). Unaware, the Punisher kills an undercover officer in Russoti’s gang before dumping the gangster in a container for glass recycling. Meanwhile, the former partner of the slain officer, Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) takes on the Castle case in order to bring the vigilante to justice. Left for dead, Russoti survived the encounter with the Punisher. Horribly scarred, his face resembles his new namesake, Jigsaw. In his effort to exact revenge on the Punisher, Jigsaw breaks his criminally insane brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson), out of a mental asylum. The demented and evil brothers begin to terrorize the widow, Angela (Julie Benz) and orphan, Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) of the slain officer from earlier. Before long, Frank Castle and Detective Budiansky join forces to take on the criminal siblings in a violent showdown.

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De Palma would dig this shot.

In the comic books, Frank Castle has always rested in the grey area between hero and villain. Depending on the story at hand, the Punisher could be a force for good or a force of misplaced anger and rage. Before War Zone, the Punisher existed on screen wholly assured in the righteousness of his wrath. In this particular film, Castle has to look at his own methods after killing the undercover officer during one of his bloody assaults. His inability to protect his family as well as his inability to keep his bloodshed limited to the guilty manifests itself in a strong streak of self-loathing.

The other Punisher films also tried to distance themselves from the comic book aspects of the character, opting to go more with an action-thriller template. War Zone embraces its comic roots. It’s colorful and over-the-top. With that over-the-top sensibilities comes the extreme violence. Maybe it’s because I grew up on repeat viewings of Robocop, but I prefer my violent movies to have blood and guts, not the sanitized violence of PG-13 movies. The blood and guts of more violent action films reinforce the notion that there are horrible consequences to violence.

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Always look for the inner beauty.

In another aspect where War Zone doesn’t run from its comic book roots is by giving Frank Castle a legitimate comic villain. The previous films have Castle in his borderline psychosis up against mobsters. At first common mobsters, Jigsaw and Looney Bin begin a reign of violent terror. For once, the Punisher is provided genuine psychotics whose brutality is actually worse than his own. However, the Punisher’s violent ways have created the monster he must destroy – it’s a perfect illustration of the cycle of violence.

It’s really sad that Punisher: War Zone failed to catch on with a wider audience. Ray Stevenson is the best Punisher to ever grace the screen, striking the right balance of rage and sadness. Though he’s no longer portraying the Punisher, Stevenson has at least stayed within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portraying Volstagg in the Thor films. With the poor reception of the film, the rights to the character have reverted back to Marvel, yet they’ve done nothing with the character.

The one and only film produced under the Marvel Knights label, Punisher: War Zone may have flopped upon its initial release, but the film has accumulated a passionate following. Comedian Patton Oswalt has become one of the film’s most vocal supporters, even hosting a screening at the New Beverly Cinema a few years back. Director Lexi Alexander moved on to do the independent children’s film Lifted. Alexander’s Twitter is worth a follow, where she discusses a wide-range of topics from diversity in film to debating piracy.

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Great moments in cinema #4,326

Despite its initial financial failings, Punisher: War Zone is truly a one-of-a-kind film. Not only is it the only Marvel-related film directed by a woman, it’s a throwback to the ultra-violent films of the ‘80s with an unrepentant comic absurdity. I mean, is there anything better than watching a parkour gang get annihilated by a rocket launcher? Released the same year as both Iron Man and The Dark Knight, Punisher: War Zone blends the best of both films – the comic fun of Iron Man and the darker undercurrents of The Dark Knight. If we ever see Frank Castle on the screen anytime soon, they sure have some big shoes to fill.

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