PUNISHER: WAR ZONE - The Mania Review - Mania.com


Mania Grade: C+

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  • Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Milhok, and Wayne Knight
  • Directed by: Lexi Alexander
  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Studio: Lionsgate
  • Series: Punisher: War Zone

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE - The Mania Review

For all its flaws, Punisher: War Zone will definitely make fans of the character happy.

By Rob Vaux     December 05, 2008

© Mania

For all its flaws, Punisher: War Zone will definitely make fans of the character happy. Lord knows they deserve it after two previous film versions that ranged from the actively dreadful to… well… the actively dreadful. Director Lexi Alexander has a keen grasp on Marvel's homicidal vigilante, and in star Ray Stevenson has found somebody who truly embodies him. With lined features as hard as granite framing the eyes of a freshly minted corpse, Stevenson feels positively born to play Frank Castle. The bar for these films has been set so low that the simple fact of nailing the title character should be cause for celebration among lovers of the Marvel comic.

The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is a severely mixed bag. Alexander brings a vibrant tone to the action and a well-placed sense of choreography, along with a palate from DP Steve Gainer that strikes the perfect balance between Taxi Driver grit and four-color fantasy. Arrayed against that are the usual sins of movies of this ilk: dreadful dialogue, contrived situations, and acting which isn't always top-of-the-line. Furthermore, none of that touches on the real complaints--the cheerful glorification of violence, the simplistic solutions to complex problems, and the niggling suspicion that War Zone is trying to discuss larger social issues it clearly isn't set up to handle. But that's par for the course with second-tier action films, and one presumes that the target audience doesn't care a whit. Those who find exploitation moviemaking distasteful have plenty of other options this awards-laden season. For the rest, it pays to set such hand-wringing aside and gauge War Zone solely for what it is.

'The Punisher' Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson, standing, right) and Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon, left) in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. Photo credit: Jonathan Wenk

And compared to its predecessors, it's practically Citizen Kane. Alexander takes her cue from the MAX series of comic books, discarding the Thomas Jane and Dolph Lundgren exercises for a completely fresh slate. Castle (Stevenson) has been acting as the Punisher for several years, wiping out entire crime families with his omnipresent arsenal of NRA-approved toys. The cops have set a task force to catch him, but they're more or less on his side, and even if they weren't, his hideout beneath the New York subway tunnels is as secure as Fort Knox. Which isn't to say he doesn't have problems. For starters, there's one of his former targets (Dominic West), who survived some impromptu surgery from an industrial glass crusher and now seeks revenge under the moniker of Jigsaw. Even more harrowing is the undercover FBI agent discovered among the piles of bodies with Castle’s ordnance in them--a genuinely good man with a widow and daughter left behind. Those twin stressors converge to push Frank towards the breaking point, where his one-man war on crime may come to an extremely messy end.

Alexander wastes comparatively little time with exposition, throwing the audience head-first into the action and assuming everyone knows the set-up. It's not hard for the uninitiated to catch up and the sharp pace set by the director lends the film a proper sense of punch. Gainer's work makes for gorgeous viewing as well: primary shades of yellow and blue light up the background while the foreground remains resolutely grimy. It provides War Zone with a viable identity, evoking the comics without sliding into undue self-awareness. Alexander also has a flair for black humor--aided by West, whose gloriously over-the-top bad guy evokes Dick Tracy in all the right ways--but never lets it dampen the necessarily harsh tone that the character requires.

Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. Photo credit: Jonathan Wenk

Those assets come shackled with a number of liabilities, however, most of which are sadly typical for the genre. Dodgy scripting hampers War Zone's overall thrust, particularly during an uninspired climax and similar moments of by-the-numbers banality. Smaller subplots often grind their wheels, and the lack of exposition leads to a quietly clunky impression that never goes away. At times, it feels like walking into the middle of another movie… a fact compounded by the way it reveals Jigsaw's origins. The plot thread bears an unseemly resemblance to the creation of the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman--complete with a riff on Nicholson's "Jack is dead" line--and saddles the Punisher with the old "second-rate Bruce Wayne" critique that he really doesn't deserve.

It wouldn't be fair to categorize such shortcomings as lost potential. Movies like this aim for quick and dirty thrills--sorely missing during the holiday season--and cutting corners in the storytelling department comes with the territory. But Alexander has the right touch for this material and Marvel seems to have gotten the message that even their minor characters should stay true to their source. It feels like a waste to finally hand the Punisher over to the right filmmakers without bothering to provide a less derivative scenario. The fans probably won't care: there's nowhere to go but up and War Zone climbs higher than it may have had a right to. But going from awful to merely flawed still proves disappointing, and there's too much good stuff here to let the bad stuff off the hook.


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goatartist 12/5/2008 2:03:24 AM

Coming out between Batman and Watchmen dampens my chance of taking this seriously. Good review. I figured as much.

JoshGordon 12/5/2008 2:32:15 AM

This too is about what I was expecting. It sounds like guilty pleasure matinee viewing. Great review!

hanso 12/5/2008 4:30:25 AM

This is kinder than all the reviews I've read so far.  Rottentomatoes has it sitting at 14%, Metacritic at 31%.  I expect shit from this movie, so it may end up actually being better than I expected, which means I might enjoy it.  

I'm off work today, so I'll catch an early cheap viewing of this.

needaname85 12/5/2008 5:20:34 AM

Great review!

I have a special place in my movie beating heart for movies that have mindless action and "dramitizes violence." Guilty pleasure indeed! But I'm kind of in the mood for this kind of movie for the weekend so I'm going to try and make it.

SgtTechCom 12/5/2008 8:33:22 AM



robbo 12/5/2008 8:46:36 AM

I saw the movie on Tuesday. By any techincal or artisitc measure it's pretty shabby. But it's a hoot and is about 60% of what a good PUNISHER movie should be.

For me, the movie crashes whenever it tries to look at the human side of Castle. I don't want to see him holding hands with a little girl or talking philosophy with an FBI agent.

The other truly terrible thing about the movie is the inconsistent acting. West's performance is Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-Schumacher's-BATMAN-FORVER BAD. While the villains are playing everything way over the top and beyond, Stevenson, Julie Benz and Colin Salmon are trying for dramatic realism which rings hollow every time they're standing around talking. Then there's Dash Mihok who seems to think he's in a 1980s CBS sitcom. There's no conistency of vision that a strong director would bring.

What Lexi does bring is great mayhem!

Stevenson is perfectly on model for the role but the hench-villain Looney Bin Jim is the most watchable aspect of the movie.

What the movie gets right is Castle's unremitting contempt for the bad guys, expressed in a constant march of hilariously (in a good way) sadistic acts. The rocket launcher scene will go down in history as a great Punisher moment and there are many others besides.

For at least half the movie I had a blast, and any Punisher fan should see it.

hanso 12/5/2008 10:25:36 AM

The movie was shit and if this is the best they can come up with for The Punisher then they need to let this character stay in the comics.

The good = Ray Stevenson is the best Punisher yet.

The bad = the villains in the film all sucked ass.  Not just Dominic West, who took the price for the biggest shit in the movie.  His stuff was laughable and not in a good way.  The acrobatic/parkour gang was also crap.    I've seen free running done nice in Casino Royale and a foreign film called District 13 if my mind serves me right, but in Punisher it was terrible what they showed them do.  They really missed the mark for what could've been a nice action sequence.

The action in the movie was way over the top, the film could've worked just as well with less exploding heads in my opinion.

Wait for video.

Wiseguy 12/5/2008 11:05:40 AM

Rob, you pretty much put into words my feelings about the film. Good comparison of West and TLJones. And as a big Punisher fan, especially Ennis' run on the Max line, I wasn't too disappointed. Obviously there's room for improvement and hopefully we'll get a chance to see that improvement. After all is said and done I enjoyed it

Now go back to the Max line and bring me a Barracuda film, even better if you can adapt the last one with Punisher's bastard daughter. That was a great arc.

robbo 12/5/2008 12:27:54 PM

Hanso: the other thing that blew chunks about the parkour guys is that Mgintey is a freakin great, imposing character in the comics.

Wiseguy: I really don't understand why they don't just start doing true adaptations of Ennis' MAX arcs. They're all tightly plotted and (mostly) self-contained.

Come on, Lionsgate. Just let Ennis write the next one.

jetpackjesus 12/5/2008 1:56:50 PM

My review: F-

I want the Dolph.

Kidding aside, I have no idea if I'll see this.  There are a couple things to see that are higher on my list and I may well not catch those either.  We'll see what happens. 

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