by Steve Habrat
If you thought that 2004’s The Punisher was a pretty lousy movie, wait until you see Lexi Alexander’s 2008 redo Punisher: War Zone, an abomination that manages to make the first one look like an Academy Award contender. Trimming off all the emotional weight from the first film (there wasn’t much to begin with but at least there was some), Punisher: War Zone ends up resembling a Saw movie crossed with a forgotten 80’s shoot-‘em-up. While The Punisher isn’t exactly a family friendly hero, there is still no excuse for the relentless bloodshed and depravity that we have in War Zone. Furthermore, there is no excuse why there isn’t more depth to the character of Frank Castle, the vigilante in the black bulletproof vest with a big, white skull plastered across it. The only reason to even consider watching War Zone is to check out Doug Hutchison’s performance as Loony Bin Jim, a deranged lunatic who maims first and then asks questions later. You certainly don’t consider this film based of Ray Stevenson’s utterly blah performance as Castle, the most robotic vigilante ever to blast his way across the screen.
Frank Castle (Played by Ray Stevenson) has been prowling the New York City streets for almost five years as The Punisher. Heavily armed and extremely dangerous, this ex-military man hunts down and dispatches criminals in the most brutal ways imaginable. One evening, Frank storms the home of mob boss Gaitano Cesare and manages to massacre every gangster inside except for Billy Russoti (Played by Dominic West), a testy enforcer obsessed with his looks. Castle sets out after the escaped gangster at his recycling plant hideout. Castle blasts his way through the plant and in the process, he ends up killing an undercover FBI agent and horribly disfiguring Billy. After discovering his mistake, Castle decides that he is quitting his life as a vigilante. Meanwhile, Billy has reconstructive surgery on his face, leaving him a mug that resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Billy takes the name “Jigsaw” and sets out to free his insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Played by Doug Hutchison) from a mental institution so the duo can track down The Punisher together and destroy him once and for all.
A good bulk of War Zone is devoted to nonstop brutality and carnage. Screenwriters Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway try to wave off the mindless violence by forcing the abrasive characters to wink at the audience and act like cartoons. I thought this was supposed to be a raw and gritty interpretation? Then we have The Punisher himself, a real snoozer of a hero. Stevenson tries to play Castle/The Punisher as the strong silent type who communicates through a distant gaze at the person in front of him. He visits the graves of his deceased family where he scrubs mold and dirt off the headstones while seething with anger. In fight scenes, he is a scowling bad ass who chops, hacks, slashes, and shoots his way through a seemingly never-ending army of gangsters who all bleed buckets when The Punisher shoots a hole through them. We never really get a glimpse inside Frank, the only emotion coming from his anger over the accidental death of the undercover FBI agent. Frank attempts to reach out to the fallen agent’s family, who is being hunted by the deranged Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim. We are just supposed to accept that the death of his family shook Castle from warm family man into cold-blooded monster. Don’t think about it too much.
War Zone doesn’t really fair any better in the supporting good guys or villains department. Colin Salmon shows up as a tough-as-concrete cop Paul Budiansky, the man looking to bring The Punisher to justice. Somehow, Paul is able to hold himself in a bone crunching battle with Frank, something that was just utterly absurd. Dash Mihok is aboard as Paul’s partner Martin Soap, who is along for the ride as comic relief that is never very funny. Wayne Knight enters the mix as Frank’s completely underused partner Micro, the man who supplies Frank with all of his guns and ammo. Julie Benz is also underused as Angela, the fallen FBI agent’s widow who always manages to be a hysterical damsel in distress, even when she isn’t in distress. Then there is Dominic West as Billy/Jigsaw, the vicious enforcer who speaks in the worst Italian accent ever. An ugly son of a gun, Jigsaw speaks like he has a mouth full of mush as he demands that local street gangs fight back against The Punisher. There is a side plot that involves a biological weapon that you think will come into play but it never does, which is downright baffling to me. The only one really who shows up to have a good time is Hutchinson’s Loony Bin Jim, who gets all the best moments of War Zone. The highlight of the film is when he gets to beat up on our hero. As he delivers each blow to The Punisher, he explains the severity of the injury. It is the only sequence that boasts strong writing, creativity, and depraved fun.
As War Zone barrels towards the finish line, the film starts to resemble a stomach churning car wreck that you just can’t stop staring at even though you so desperately want to turn away and vomit. You will also be reaching for the Advil to relive the throbbing migraine that the film surely will cause. War Zone ends up turning into an unyielding, tasteless blur of heavy metal, terrible lighting, and reckless direction. The plotline becomes such a mess that you can’t even begin to figure out how the people behind the camera are going to tie it all up. The only relief that we find is Hutchison, who really brings the crazy to this horrorshow. Even worse, Alexander can’t decide if she wants this film to be a horror movie or an exercise in exploitation. Somewhere out there in Hollywoodland, someone has a good story for The Punisher but it seems that the suits out there just haven’t found that person yet. I hope they find that person quick because this character is barely clinging to life in the cinema realm. And let’s hope they don’t invite back the lifeless Stevenson.
Punisher: War Zone is available on Blu-ray and DVD.