DEFEND YOUR COLLECTION!: Punisher: War Zone, by Craig Schroeder
This is an ongoing series that will explore the perceived anomalies in the DVD collections of BP writers. These are movies that may give someone pause when they browse your movie shelf, but we’re here to tell you why they belong in any film lover’s collection.
To my friends and fellow cineastes, no film in my collection is more baffling than 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. Having had the outrageous misfortune of following one of the worst comic book adaptations of all time – 2004’s The Punisher was a woefully miscast mountain of shit that turned Marvel’s most dour and menacing anti-hero into an impotent sadness-robot – and coming at the heels of two wildly successful comic book films in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, Punisher: War Zone never seemed to have a chance. Grossing only ten million dollars world-wide (worse than Howard the Duck) and a Rotten Tomatoes score of twenty-seven percent (only one point higher than Blade: Trinity), Punisher: War Zone was a commercial and critical disaster. A film remembered only as a punch-line. But Punisher: War Zone is in on the joke, a self-aware mixture of camp and fun that captures the very essence of its source material.
The Punisher as a character, whose nihilistic outlook and propensity towards nightmarish violence, never really gelled with any of Marvel’s All-American do-gooders or Adonis-like super-gods. And Punisher: War Zone shows just why Frank Castle (Ray Stephenson) doesn’t belong in Marvel’s legion of boy scouts. The film picks up several years into Castle’s burgeoning career as the Punisher. When Castle disfigures a mafia heavy named Jigsaw (Dominic West), Jigsaw seeks revenge, enlisting the help of his criminally insane, cannibalistic brother “Looney Bin” Jim (played with absolute delight by Doug Hutchison, famed character actor who would go on to become a tabloid staple for marrying a child and being a total weirdo).
The cast of Punisher: War Zone (including Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok and Julie Benz) are the film’s strongest component, each fully committing to a gonzo action film. Whereas 2004’s The Punisher waffled between a melancholy origin story and a poorly conceived blow-em-up spectacle, Punisher: War Zone goes all in on weighing the campy violence with the moral politics of its source material. Whether director Lexi Alexander intended this or not, Punisher: War Zone is an exploration in the kind of barbarism it would take to actually be a vigilante super-hero – a theme often overlooked by other super-hero vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil, who fight evil without racking up a significant body-count. Punisher: War Zone – what with exploding heads, severed limbs, disfigured faces and a gang of maniacally violent, parkour-ing thugs (for real) – becomes a meditative study on violence in comics and their film adaptations. Though I do think Punisher: War Zone has wisdom beyond its director’s intentions, I don’t want to detract from the film’s most obvious draw: it is a fucking awesome action film. Featuring a number of elaborate, flashy action set pieces, the climax stands out as one of the most memorable in any Marvel film; it’s a wonderfully choreographed sequence that sees Frank Castle fighting his way through a multi-floored tenement building filled with hired goons (a sequence that Gareth Evan’s 2011 film The Raid: Redemption owes a a substantial debt).
The rights to the Punisher have reverted back to Marvel, so it is a possibility that Frank Castle could appear in the same cinematic universe as the Avengers. And though that seems unlikely (and probably shouldn’t happen), Punisher: War Zone makes the argument that a Punisher film can be as much fun as Iron Man. It certainly isn’t the pièce de résistance of comic book adaptations, but Punisher: War Zone is unjustly lumped in with the likes of Daredevil, Catwoman, and Elektra. But it will continue to be championed in my collection and the collection of those I can convert; or at least badger into reluctant agreement.