Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence, Language and some Drug Use
Directed by: Lexi Alexander
Written by: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway & Nick Santora
(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok & Wayne Knight
After the financial success of 2004’s THE PUNISHER, it seemed like a sequel was inevitable. Thomas Jane was primed and ready to go, but a long-stalled production and numerous script rewrites caused him to walk away. Lionsgate decided that it would go the Sony SPIDER-MAN route before that was even a thing and turned WAR ZONE into a full-blown reboot as opposed to a follow-up to the first film. For those keeping score at home, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is the third attempt to kick off a Punisher franchise. As one might expect, history repeated itself and now Frank Castle has flown the coop to Netflix. WAR ZONE seems to be the most polarizing Punisher film out there. Some people love it for its carnage-laced lunacy, while others consider it be a bastardization of the heavily armed anti-hero. I fall somewhere in the middle.
Years have passed since Frank Castle’s family was gunned down in a mob hit. Frank secretly survived the attempt on his life though and turned to a bloodthirsty vigilante lifestyle. Armed to the teeth with guns, bombs, and knifes, Frank Castle has become The Punisher. Over the past five years, the Punisher has been systematically wiping out large mob figures. Frank’s latest attempt to take out a crime family has gone awry. By gone I awry, I mean that the Punisher has accidentally gunned down an undercover FBI agent and left one psychotic gangster (nicknamed Jigsaw) horribly disfigured, but alive. While the Punisher considers possible retirement, the FBI forms a task force to take Frank down and Jigsaw plots a gruesome revenge.
Out of the three PUNISHER films, WAR ZONE is by far the best looking of the bunch. The visuals are colorful as lots of neon colors are used and a slick atmosphere hovers over practically every scene. The film is also insanely violent beyond belief. With the exception of a couple of noticeably bad computer effects (some cheap-looking fire and fake squirting blood), the violence is very well executed (pardon the pun) with lots of practical effects being utilized. Frank doesn’t spare anyone that he doesn’t have to. We see faces punched into a pulp, limbs blown clean off, impalements, necks being broken, and, of course, lots of bullets flying every which way. Stuntwoman-turned-director Lexi Alexander certainly seems to be having a blast behind the camera as her vision of the Punisher is the goriest version to hit the screen yet.
If only the plot was up to the same level of creative violence on display, because this storyline feels disappointingly generic. We’ve seen this storyline used before in other comic book adaptations before WAR ZONE and it seems like it was the Punisher’s turn to play out the familiar by-the-numbers formula. As Frank Castle, Ray Stevenson is more entertaining to watch than droopy-eyed Dolph Lundgren, but lacks the charisma and likability of Thomas Jane. He’s an okay action hero, but I never felt like I was watching the Punisher. The two characters (an obsessed cop and a straight-laced FBI agent) on the anti-Punisher team are fun to watch, but seem to be constantly forgotten in the proceedings. Their presence does lead to the film’s single funniest bit of dark comedy in the film though, which I kept replaying and it made me laugh every single time. Also on the sidelines are Wayne Knight making the most of what he can in the role of a weapons dealer and Julie Benz playing a typical damsel-in-distress.
As far as villains are concerned, WAR ZONE has two very colorful baddies and a lot of bland side thugs. The two main antagonists are Jigsaw and his cannibalistic brother, Loony Bin Jim. These two are entertaining enough to watch in moments, but can be obnoxious in chewing the scenery. Dominic Cooper (300) is hidden under layers of make-up as Jigsaw and plays a purposely exaggerated Brooklyn gangster with a very ugly mug. That’s about all there is to this villain. One scene in which he tries to recruit fellow gangsters is over-the-top, but his final moments are his best scenes in the film. Doug Hutchinson (Percy from THE GREEN MILE) plays Loony Bin Jim with a deranged delight. Though his character can occasionally be grating alongside Cooper’s Jigsaw, he receives some of the film’s more disgusting moments.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is about as over-the-top and ridiculously gory as a PUNISHER movie can possibly be. It lacks the brooding tragic nature of the Thomas Jane adaptation, but remains consistently entertaining as a blood-soaked B-movie with an A-movie’s production values. The film’s slick look, insane amounts of violence, and professional direction make it worth a watch, even if the performances, plot, and silly moments can be annoying. For me, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is snuggled comfortably in between the ’89 Lundgren B-flick and ’04’s origin story. There’s nothing really wrong with that as all three PUNISHER films can be enjoyed for entirely separate reasons.