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Because, seriously, the Punisher is not a superhero

By Kurt Amacker     December 10, 2008

Ray Stevenson in PUNISHER WAR ZONE (slideshow)
© Lionsgate

Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to this week’s No-Fly Zone. We’re going to review the latest comic-to-film adaptation to hit the screens, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. Some may see this as violation of the column’s mandate to focus on material outside of mainstream superheroes. But, well, the Punisher kind of is these days—at least the version depicted in this film. You see, the Punisher is not a superhero. His roots lie in the Marvel Universe, but the sources Punisher: War Zone draws from either occur outside of that world or mock it relentlessly, such as Garth Ennis’s landmark 12-issue miniseries, Welcome Back, Frank and his 60-issue run on Marvel MAX’s The Punisher. In the former, Frank Castle interacted with superheroes often enough, only to one-up and humiliate them on the way to executing a mob boss or some drug dealers. In the latter, Ennis took the character out of the Marvel Universe for a mature-readers reboot that saw Castle’s war on the Mafia take on international implications. Though Punisher: War Zone borrows a few plot elements from the character’s older, more straightforward run in the Marvel Universe—arms supplier Microchip (Wayne Knight) and nemesis Jigsaw (Dominic West), namely—it derives its tone and many of its supporting characters from Ennis’s run. Like Ennis’s work, the film traffics almost as much in black comedy as it does in ultra-violent action scenes.

The story pits Castle (Ray Stevenson) against mob boss Billy Russotti, who sits between a shipment of biological weapons being imported by the Russian mob to be sold to Islamic terrorists in Queens. At the film’s start, Castle wipes out numerous capos and soldiers at a dinner party for New York Mafia patriarch Gaitano Cesare. Russotti survives the ordeal, but Castle follows him to a recycling plant at the docks he controls. During the ensuing shootout, Castle accidentally kills undercover FBI agent Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari) before pushing knocking Russotti into a glass recycler and turning it on. Those two events set the stage for the rest of the film, as the disfigured Russotti renames himself Jigsaw and tries to find several thousand dollars of mob money Donatelli had. This leads both Castle and Jigsaw to the agent’s widow (Julie Benz) and child. Castle must both protect Donatelli’s family and stop Jigsaw, as the latter amasses an army from the criminal underworld to kill the Punisher.

Punisher: War Zone sits in an uncomfortable spot that will make it difficult for many viewers to appreciate. It is bad in all the right places—too conspicuously so to suggest mere haphazard filmmaking. Like Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, it plays as both a straight action film and a comedy. The sight of the Punisher shooting an acrobatic gang member out of midair with a rocket propelled grenade stands as one of the funniest movie moments of the year. For those with a black sense of humor, Punisher: War Zone works as comedy gold. Director Lexi Alexander makes the violence funny—offensive to anyone with a weak stomach and delightful for those with a sick sense of humor. Jigsaw and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) chew the scenery like a pair of freshly dislodged kidneys. Dominic West invokes both Jack Nicholson’s and Tommy Lee Jones’s respective performances as the Joker and Two-Face in Batman and Batman Forever. Unmistakably, Punisher: War Zone does not take place in anything like the real world. Rather, it is one that allows for the narrative excesses normally found in comic books, in which a deformed Mafia boss in a velvet pimp suit can negotiate with the Russian mob about importing a WMD—and then get total immunity from the FBI for ratting them out. It looks a lot like New York (or Toronto, where it was filmed), but this is a comic book world that disregards reality at its convenience.

The film also works as a kind of send-up of so many “one man army” flicks from the 1980s. It trots out just about every action movie cliché in the book. It does so with such a ham-fisted approach that one can’t help but see it as intentional. Ray Stevenson scowls and growls his way amidst so much ridiculousness, as if he’s the only one not in on the joke. And yet, a lot of the action scenes are played straight, with necks snapped, heads blown off, and mobsters killed in all sorts of interesting ways. In that respect, the film creates an uncomfortable imbalance. The action scenes are always thrilling, inventive, and brutal. Stevenson perfectly embodies Ennis’s Castle—a solemn, morally absolutist killing machine who lives only to punish the guilty. The character exhibits little emotion, outside of his remorse for killing the undercover FBI agent. Even in that instance, he submits to his own code by giving Donatelli’s widow the opportunity to kill him. Stevenson brings a pitch-perfect Frank Castle to the screen, but that seems oddly out of place in a film dedicated to making light of itself. Punisher fans will enjoy watching Stevenson shoot and chop his way through the criminal underworld. But, when the killing stops, the laughs often start. The film tries to balance action and comedy with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, but it seems like the two tones work against each other a lot of the time.

But, Punisher: War Zone is worth seeing at least once. The film is truly funny in a way that many comedies never reach. And, the action scenes are brutally thrilling. But, it feels like the two never truly mesh comfortably. It tries to work as a kick-ass B-movie—an awful film that you can’t help but love—and it succeeds somewhat. Those looking for an unflinching, remorseless Punisher film will be disappointed, as the film never takes itself too seriously. One can’t help but think that a straight film might look unintentionally dated at this point—unlike Punisher: War Zone, which goes out of its way to appear as such. A great “straight” Punisher film should’ve been made 30 years ago by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, or John Frankenheimer. Think First Blood meets Taxi Driver meets The Godfather—a Mafia epic from the point of view of a vigilante. With that era long gone, fans are left with something much more self-aware.

Comparisons between the 2004 film The Punisher remain inevitable. War Zone corrects the great mistake of the 2004 film by depicting Frank Castle as a relentless killing machine. Tom Jane portrayed the character well, and did so with a believable humanity that Stevenson’s version could have used at a couple of points in War Zone. But the script had Castle spend much of the film conspiring against mob boss Howard Saint. The Punisher most of us know wouldn’t restage Othello by making a jealous gangster think that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, tricking him into killing them both. The Punisher slaughters people creatively and efficiently. The 2004 film played the story straight, albeit with some of the humor of Welcome Back, Frank left in tact. Both films have their strengths, though Stevenson’s one-note demeanor is arguably truer to the comic character—as is the origin depicted in the film, minus the character’s military service in Vietnam (which neither film had). Whether that serves a cinematic adaptation or not is hard to say.

Overall, Punisher: War Zone is worth a look. It tried for something unexpected and ambitious, but only partially succeeded. Rather than doing a straightforward action film, it made light of itself and the entire genre amid some very creative violence. In that regard, it frequently captures the tone of the comic with some extra laughs thrown in. But, that doesn’t necessarily translate well to film. What it amounts to is a decent guy flick with some great laughs and spectacular kills. See it drunk and see it with friends. Whether it holds up beyond that remains to be seen.

You are now exiting The No-Fly Zone.


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bearly 12/10/2008 2:25:15 PM

Nice try Kurt Amacker.  You say Punisher: War Zone is worth checking out, I saw the poor box officer performance is the best reason not see it.  Punisher: War Zone made only $4 million opening weekend and The Punisher made $13.8 million.  War Zone didn't even make half as much as The Punisher.  I say  "no thank you"  I am not going to waste my time with this piece of junk.  I am boycotting Punisher: War Zone.  I am really upset at Lions Gate, as a fan of the movie The Punisher I wanted to see a sequel with Thomas Jane.  I was curious to see where Jonathan Hensleigh (director of The Punisher) would take the character next.  I hope Lions Gate learns from this mistake and decides to make an official sequel to The Punisher with Thomas Jane as the Punisher and Jonathan Hensleigh directing.  And in the begining of this sequel the watcher appears and says, "What if Punisher: War Zone never happend."

hanso 12/10/2008 4:12:40 PM

"See it drunk and see it with friends."

If you gotta see it drunk to enjoy it you know it's shit.

SONYMANswallows 12/10/2008 4:27:58 PM


since  all you can do is criticize the film because you read reviews by people who think American Idol is a good source for music your opinion does not matter at all. Deal with that fact. Go take dancing lessons so you can strut like Emo Peter Parker in Spider Pig3.


Tom jane was good in a pathetic origin story with awful acting, wasted equipment and a Russian that got his head chopped off in the comic but which Hensleigh ignored for the film. And why did Frank even have  a car or get threatened by harry Heck if they were going to be written off like anything in a Schumacher Batman flick.

Not to mention the fact that Tom Jane could not play drunk to save his life. He could barely play stoned in THURSDAY.

Travolta gave another bad performance as Howard saint, and the scene where Frank's family is killed was more poorly performed than a speech by Sara Palin.


Im curious as to what the last 5 or 10 movies were you saw in a theater? You do know there is a recession going on and alot of people cant afford to go see movies in the theater. Or in your mind does that not count as a reason for poor box office?

Not to mention the general public is tired of comic book films this year, I fear that THE SPIRIT will suffer a fate close to PUNISHER WAR ZONE except it is PG13. However it is not populat and the syle is already turning people off.


So I say not even a good try bearly and regarding your baseless opinion "no thank you". To bad when you see it and enjoy it you will be to yellow to admit that you liked it for the fun it is.



This is the most fair review of PUNISHER WAR ZONE I have read, Thanks Mr. Ackerman for being positive about what will be a cult classic on the level of OFFICE SPACE in a few years.


PS I was completely sober watching it and enjoyed the entire ride.

Wiseguy 12/10/2008 5:25:58 PM

I'll be honest I liked it when I saw it Friday but I was hoping for more. I reflected it on it since and went back today for a second look and just enjoyed it even more. And I haven't touched liquor in years so I was sober. I think sony is right that this will become a cult hit in time and people will begin to appreciate it. I wanted more mostly because I would love to see more Punisher but with these b.o. numbers I'm feeling a little bumbed out. Hate to see the best Punisher go to waste just because people want to see a stereo-typical vigilante instead of the cold blooded killer Castle is. This is the real Punisher.

SONYMANswallows 12/10/2008 5:36:11 PM

WISEGUY  what the hell, with all the shit you and I have gotten into over the years and we have agreed on this and that WB article within the last 2 weeks. Isnt this a sign of the Apocalypse. I picked up the soundtrack today which has some good tracks. A few lame ones but it was pretty much a good listen. I think Lexi and Ray will get another shot and maybe a story before  this one so MicroChip will get some screen time. You have to help me get Hanso on the band wagon as well. The hotel shpptout was bad ass when he hits the guys behind the door.



Time to get my apple sauce back!!!!!!!!!!!

Wiseguy 12/10/2008 6:08:44 PM

I guess Obama did bring change after all. Hope you're right and they get another crack. Would like to see Barracuda, he was almost as bad ass as Punisher but on the other side. Did hate the way they offed Micro

hanso 12/10/2008 7:24:09 PM

You seriously paid twice to Punisher: War Zone?  What's the matter with you!!

Sony my boy you can't get me on the bandwagon,  I'm throwing rocks as the wagon passes by :)

You know what I don't get about this movie.  Castle in the beginning probably wacked the Don and the Cappos only cause they would be the ones having dinner at the house.  Meaning the rest of the crew and muscle would be out there, however when Jigsaw becomes the head of the family, he only has 3 people with him?  WTF?  What he would've done was promote his right hand man as a Cappo an let him take over some of the crew, then go after Punisher.

I also hated the opening credits, why were they showing stuff that was gonna happen later in the movie? They should've played the mob element more.

bearly 12/10/2008 8:12:16 PM

Sorry SonyManswallos that it took me to long to respond to your post, but I was to busy laughing my ass off (at your post).  American Idol and Dancing with your mom, Ha Ha Ha and I thought my jokes were bad.  So I ask you, in your opinion why did Punisher: War Zone suck so bad?  Is it the bad reviews or is it the recession?   I am surprised you didn't also blame it on the pirates.  I bet you like the Frantic Four.  Your favorite character is the Human Roach, because in your post i read "BLAME ON" between the lines.

I am tired of whiners like you blaming it on the recession.  You can't blame poor box office on recession when you have movies like High School Musical and Twilight making big bank at the box office.  Just face it Punisher: War Zone was awful, it performed less than Transporter 3  and Transporter 3 was all ready out for a week.  I would have considered giving Punisher: War Zone a chance but come on debuting in 8th place.

As for the last 5 or 10 movies i saw.  I would go to the movies more often if the studios would make movies that the fans want to see.  We wanted to see a Punisher sequel to the T.J. (Thomas Jane) version of The Punisher, did the fans get that? No they didn't so the fans didn't waste their time with a piece of Junk (Punisher: War Zone).

The whole point of this post is; 1. to prove that SonyManswallos is wrong and 2. I hope an executive at Lions Gate reads this and says, "Lets make one more Punisher movie and this time we'll let Jonathan Hensleigh direct it and cowrite it. Just to see what happens."

SONYMANswallows 12/10/2008 9:14:39 PM

Dancing with your mom? Is that a crack at me and my mother you Bin Laden loving cunt. She has been dead for 20 years so if thats you idea of a joke I know for a fact that no one is laughing.

Not that I need to explain myself to you in any reason but lets get the facts straight cause for some reason You think I attacked your family unless you are so desperate to justify your baseless opinion which you are obviously embarrassed by that you chose to attack a family memeber of mine. I in no way attacked your family.


The recession and the rest of the economy are only part of the reasons I gave. Incase you didnt notice High School Musical and Twighlight are glorified kids movies and movies for middle school girls which explains why you would refer to them. They are the only age group of females that could possibly believe you have a clue about anything.  Of course kids movies are going to out perform a violent action film except for Quantum of Solace (oh and bearly since the gerbil in your head that worked its way out of Richard Gere's ass hole  and into your asshole and upto your empty skull must be running low on air in such a cramped space I will let you know that Quantum of Solace is a James Bond movie or as you of few sylables would call it a Bond film).


And I didnt say the last 5 or 10 comic character movies you saw. I asked the last five to 10 movies you saw in any genre.


And who are the fans that wanted to see a sequel only with Tom Jane? Other than yourself? And the fans didnt get Tom jane cause the fans didnt demand Jane back or can you point me to some site or printed article that proves you right and me wrong?


You really need to quit before sara palin proves to be smarter than you and not just the equal you have reduced yourself to.



By the way Madagascar 2 and Bolt along with 4 Crhristmas' all made more money and why is that? Because they are family movies which are always the big box office winners this time of year along with some Oscar contenders. Go blow travolta since you like his bad movies so much. I really for sorry for you bearly, hope you dont cry when you find out Santa isnt real. How do you explain trhe poor box office for Army of Darkness and since when is Ghostbusters a sci-fi flick? I guess I should cut you some skack since "you dont read comics cause you would rather watch the movies" explains why you dont get why PUNISHER 2004 was such shit compared to PUNISHER WARZONE. You need to be more pissed at Lionsgate for going with the gay star power of John Travolta in a failed attempt to sell tickets. FACT IS THE FANS DID NOT WANT TRAVOLTA, FANS WANTED THE OLD WOMAN IN THE WHEEL CHAIR FROM THE COMICS AND A DECAPITATED RUSSIAN vs a film that made Batman and Robin look better.

SinisterPryde 12/11/2008 12:52:59 AM

I haven't seen War Zone, yet, but Box Office numbers aren't a deterrent.  Just because a movie bombs at the box office doesn't mean it sucks.  There've been a lot of big movies this year and with the success of The Dark Knight I don't think people are bunred on comic movies, either.   I think the Punisher himself has limited appeal.  I don't think any movie featuring the character will do gangbusters at the box office.  

Personally, I've always thought Punisher movies should be depicted with cartoon-like violence (John Woo would be the perfect director, IMHO).  At its heart, The Punisher  is just a typical 80's revenge film character with a skull on his chest.  There have been a lot of these out there (Death Wish, Death Sentence, The Brave One, etc.) They all tell the same story.  What makes the Punisher unique is the over the top violence, the comic book world.  I was disappointed with the Tom Jane version becasue it was too grounded.  Oh, and John Travolta can't really play a bad guy.



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