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Punisher: War Zone (2009) Director Lexi Alexander 8 February 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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After two previous stabs at the vigilante justice of Frank Castle (including Dolph Lundgren’s awful 1988 direct to video cheese fest and the far superior but flawed Tom Jane version from 2004) the makers of Punisher: War Zone have finally hit on a satisfactory formula for one of the most violent comic book characters there is.

Ray Stevenson (Rome’s Titus Pullo) plays the former undercover agent who after loosing his family in a mob killing takes justice into his own hands and punishes the guilty. The film forgoes any origin story to get straight into the action and boy does it start with a bang. War Zone contains some of the most vicious and gory deaths I have ever seen. Bones break in their hundreds and bullets fly in their thousands with suitably copious amounts of the red stuff. The purpose of all this violence? After accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent Frank vows to walk away from his line of work suffering from the guilt of leaving a mother and child fatherless. But when it turns out that the mobster the undercover agent was working for Billy Russoti is after the mother and child Castle takes action to protect them. The problem is Castle already killed Russoti once, at least he though he did when Castle put him through a glass smashing machine. Turns out he didn’t die but the experience completely destroyed Russoti’s face and now re-born Jigsaw he’s out for revenge.

The plot, like in most films of this kind, is largely inconsequential and a means for us to move from one action scene to the next, and in that respect the screenplay for War Zone does its job beautifully. Castle, like in the Tom Jane version, is a difficult character to sympathise with. We like him purely because he is tough and (mostly) does the right thing, dealing out real justice to the bad guys. But the fact he is largely silent and has to do little more than look moody and fight means it can feel like there’s little to grab onto at times, though Stevenson does well with what he’s got and makes a convincing killing machine when fully fitted out in the Punisher garb.

Dominic West plays Jigsaw in a suitably over the top manner befitting a comic book villain, but one can’t help feel but underwhelmed by such simple characters after Heath Ledger’s multi faceted portrayal of the definitive comic book villain. The rest of War Zone’s cast generally ranges from bad to worse with the long lost Wayne Knight in the thankless role of Castle’s arms/tech supplier micro, a terrible Dash Mihok as nervy head of the police’s Punisher task force Martin Soap and fellow brit Colin Salmon once again sporting his bizarre American accent. Worst of all however is an actor I hate so irrationally that it threatens to destroy any positive feelings towards films I see him in and that’s Doug Hutchinson. I won’t go into it here but he’s almost unwatchable as Loony Bin Jim (cause he’s a nutter you see), a horribly cliched psychotic character who has somehow developed acrobatic abilities rivalling the world’s best gymnasts despite being locked in a mental home for what must be a significant amount of time.

Where the film really shines is in its tone. It’s got the feel of the world just about right (although that’s coming from someone who’s read very little Punisher in the past). There are some moments of dark humour which feel a little out of place but this is mostly the ultra-violent revenge fest we were all hoping the first one would be. Some of the kills defy belief. Literally punching someones face in, check, exploding heads, check, impalement, check, it’s all here and then some. If you like your films violent and loud you will love this. It’s also refreshing to see a character who makes almost entirely rational decisions (ie. rational being the decisions I would have made in the same situation) even if they aren’t the ones that fit the cliche of the anti hero.

The film failed to light up the box office in America but director Lexi Alexander’s neon saturated Punisher is a much better version of the character’s story than the oddly toned, overacted and underwhelming Tom Jane version, at least they manage to set this one mostly at night time. The most enjoyable movie of the year so far. Not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination but a film I would gladly watch again.

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