Never let it be said that if you give the people what they want—what they really, really WANT, as the Girls of Spice used to say—they will respond in spades (and in the case of the film industry, hand-fulls of cash). Thus is the case with 2008’s PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, the third film in the PUNISHER “franchise”—if you’re definition of “franchise” means three films put out by three different studios, each a stand-alone ‘reboot”, over the course of 20 years. And you know what, it kills me that PUNISHER:WAR ZONE tanked so badly theatrically and in the home ownership market (losing $10 million dollars altogether from its modest $35 million dollar budget). IT KILLS ME!!! Why? Cause simply put, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE finally—FINALLY—got the Punisher right.
As discussed in my review of the two previous PUNISHER films, both films took not only liberties with FRANK CASTLE’s shampoo-simple origin, but also went out of their way to make films that defy everything that has made the PUNISHER a hit character for decades in the comic book market. But PUNISHER: WAR ZONE…it did it all perfectly. Frank’s family was accidentally killed in a mob shoot-out in Central Park, sending Castle down the road of retribution that is THE PUNISHER. A pissed-off ex-military man who uses his vast knowledge and training to kill every GD criminal he can get his hands on/knives into/bullets thru. Neither the 1989 or 2004 Punisher could stick with that simple premise (the Dolph Lungren ’89 PUNISHER coming the closest with Frank’s family being targeted by the mob in a car bomb). The freaking and overly-elaborate origin in 2004’s PUNISHER took up nearly half the film. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE? We get two, short flashbacks—sort of like a Punisher comic where they will occasionally recap Franks origin in a couple of panels. From PANELS to FRAMES PER SECOND, indeed!
Originally meant to be a direct sequel to 2004’s PUNISHER with THOMAS JANE in tow and everything, WAR ZONE instead went through a several process of script rewrites, directors dropping in and out, and star Tommy Jane finally throwing in the towel after reading the above mentioned (“terrible”) scripts and tiring of waiting for the film to get off the ground. In fact, the only thing to survive the script (re)writing process that began in earnest in 2005 was the villain—FINALLY—would be Frank’s #1 nemesis in the comics, the totally bad-ass JIGSAW.
But eventually things fell into place. A script was finally approved (or just “accepted” as good enough), LEXI ALEXANDER was brought in to direct, and RAY STEVENSON was brought in to replace Jane. And no offense to Thomas Jane whom I LOVE, but STEVENSON is the PUNISHER, giving the role the proper, comic inspired gravitas neither Jane or PUNISHER 89’s Dolph Lungren could hope to achieve. He looks the role—grizzled, terrifying, and all-around not someone you’d want on your tail.
MICROCHIP!!! Yes! Comic fans, such as me, have always known there is no Punisher without his right-hand computer-hacking/weapon specialist tubby little buddy Microchip. And finally, after being ignored by the filmmaking community for 20 years, WAR ZONE finally delivers the goods on Micro. Not only does he provide Frank the much needed assistance he needs in his war on crime, but he’s also given a tender, albeit brief, backstory involving him taking care of his dying mother in his non-Punisher assisting downtime. And best of all, the role went to the one man who—THE ONLY MAN—who was born to play Microchip, WAYNE KNIGHT.
So instead of giving my usual point-by-point plot breakdown of the film, I’ll just say this: It captures the character perfectly in world that is filled with murder and revenge, both on the part of the PUNISHER and his dastardly foes. And OH! What foes he has in this film! First off, as promised DOMINIC WEST brings to life Franks adversary JIGSAW. In an origin scene lifted straight out of Tim Burton’s 89 BATMAN, Jigsaw is just a high ranking crime boss until Frank kills a bunch of his friends and tosses the man who would be JIGSAW into a giant glass crushing machine (Batman dropping Jack Napier into toxic waste), who manages to survive and is gruesomely put back together by a back-alley plastic surgeon. The “reveal” of Jigsaw in the doctor’s office, from the initial shot from behind perspective (“MIRROR!”) to his proclamation of his new identity (“Call me…JOKER!”), I swear if someone had the time and willingness to edit these scenes from WAR ZONE and BATMAN together side-by-side I’m pretty sure Marvel would owe Warner Brothers some money.
JIGSAW’s first plan, after raising to the rank of head crime boss (since Frank was nice enough to kill off all his higher ranking Mob buddies) is to break his brother “Loony Bin Jim” aka LBJ out of the Loony Bin to help him. LBJ is played by DOUG HUTCHINSON, who you may know from his roles as the loathsome “Percy” in THE GREEN MILE, or as the head of the Dharma Initiative in the 70’s on LOST. But most likely you know him as the creep who a couple years ago at age 51 married the then 16 year old Jonbenet Ramsey. (In researching this review I was both fascinated and disturbed to learn Hutchinson was a graduate of Apple Valley High School and started his acting career right here in The Daily Rotation’s home state of Minnesota.)
But Hutchinson and West play the evil brothers with the amp set all the way to 11. They are completely out of hand and a delight to watch work together. A montage scene later in the film of the two recruiting all the criminals they can to take down THE PUNISHER is a loving homage to PATTON, which had they not already let these two actors off the chain would have been embarrassingly lame, instead by that point they are so far gone it’s the ultimate camp moment that is still 100% awesome, believable, and joyous to view.
Sure, there is some other business going on, like a “Punisher Task Force” of one who actually does everything he can to assist this vigilante he sees more as a blessing than a curse to the police, feeding Frank info and getting him out of police hands in the few instances that occurs. Also, early on Frank accidentally kills an undercover agent on a Mob raid, and knowing the man had a family, Frank attempts to make amends with the dead officers wife, but she’s played by the always-grating JULIE BENZ so it takes a while for her to come around to Franks way of thinking–specifically after he saves both her and her daughter multiple times, even sacrificing Microchip, his only real friend in the world, to do so.
What really sets WAR ZONE apart from the previous two PUNISHER incarnations is the heightened pace of the film. And the violence. Oh dear god, THE VIOLENCE! I’m not usually one to give too much credence to a film that relies heavily on CG blood squibs and gore, but once THE PUNISHER literally blows a guys head apart at point blank range…well, what more do you idiot fanboys want?!?! It’s never going to get any better and more PUNISHER-accurate than this.
But, as I stated at the top, WAR ZONE was a financial sinkhole for MARVEL, even at $35 mil. So, are Frank’s big screen days finally behind him? I would say…probably not. Much like John Doe, Marvel/Disney have the upper-hand in the superhero film department, and Marvel has stated they would eventually like to see Frank brought back to life either in film or television. And if Thomas Jane gets his way, he’ll be back in black (and skull shirt) someday soon, “doing it right this time.” Again, sorry Tommy, but THE PUNISHER was finally done right, I’m sorry you just didn’t get to be in on that incarnation. On the other hand, when you’re done making a cable series about porn, I wouldn’t mind a Thomas Jane led AMCish PUNISHER tv show. It would have to reboot everything of course—AGAIN!!!—so just don’t F-up the origin this time, OK Big Guy? OK.