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.
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