CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: PUNISHER WAR ZONE
By Michael Arruda & L. L. Soares
(The scene is a dark alleyway in a bad part of town. MICHAEL ARRUDA meets L.L. SOARES there at midnight next to a large green dumpster).
MA: So why did I have to meet you here?
LS: Because of the ambience! We’re reviewing the new Punisher movie after all!
(On the dumpster, there is a sticker that reads “Please do not dump human remains here.”)
MA: Oh yeah, speaking of which, what did you think of PUNISHER WAR ZONE?
LS: Excuse me a minute.
(LS whips out a revolver and takes a shot at a head peeking around the corner at them)
LS: Rats! Missed!
(Behind LS, a man stumbles away with blood spurting from his head in every direction)
MA: I don’t think you mi— never mind.
LS: Okay, well, PUNISHER WAR ZONE is actually the third movie featuring the Marvel Comics character Frank Castle, also known as the vigilante The Punisher. The first film, back in 1989 was called THE PUNISHER and starred Dolph Lundgren as Castle and Louis Gossett Jr. It was a B-level action movie that bore hardly any resemblance to the comic book character at all (Lundgren didn’t even wear the Punisher’s trademark skull logo on his chest, and that’s the only semblance of a “costume” the character has!) and it was pretty lame. I kind of don’t even consider the Lundgren version to be a real Punisher movie.
MA: You’re not alone. I remember when the Lundgren film came out, and what little hype there was at the time was all about Lundgren himself (fresh off his villainous boxer portrayal in ROCKY IV, he was being billed as the next action hero.) Nary a word was spoken about Marvel comics.
LS: Then in 2004, we got another movie called THE PUNISHER. This was one of those “reboots” where they tried to resurrect the franchise. It was a more expensive movie, more deserving of the character, and actor Thomas Jane was actually decent as Castle. They even had some scenes that were taken from Garth Ennis’s acclaimed run on the comic. But this version was pretty bad, too, mainly due to a weak script and the fact that the main villain (a generic mob boss named Howard Saint, played by John Travolta) totally sucked. A hero is only as interesting as his villains, and in the second version of THE PUNISHER, Thomas Jane really had nobody worthwhile to play off against, so the movie failed on a lot of levels, which was sad.
Now we get PUNISHER WAR ZONE, named after one of several spin-off comics from the original Punisher series. This time around, we get real characters from the comics (including Castle’s “sidekick” Micro (played by Wayne Knight here – Newman from SEINFELD!!)– who in the comics was a computer hacker, but who here is more of an arms supplier), as well as a bonafide comic book villain who has tangled with the Punisher several times, named Jigsaw (and no, he’s not the guy from SAW, this Jigsaw came way before that guy!)
A few things to note about PUNISHER WAR ZONE. The first thing is the casting. This time around, Frank Castle is played by Ray Stevenson. Some of you may remember him as the terrific Titus Pullo from HBO’s amazing series ROME. Stevenson is big and intimidating, and a very physical actor. He’s perfect for playing Frank Castle. And then we have Dominic West (who played Detective Jimmy McNulty on another great HBO series, THE WIRE), who is terrific as Jigsaw, a character who starts out as vain mobster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti, a guy who is so taken with himself he is always looking in the mirror. Billy gets chopped up in a glass recycling machine by the Punisher and somehow lives. His patchwork, Frankenstein-looking new self is hungry for the Punisher’s blood. When either Stevenson or West (or both) are onscreen, it’s like nobody else is even there. They’re that good.
MA: I thought Jigsaw’s make-up was one of the better aspects of the movie. His face is a complete mess, nauseating to look at it, (looks at LS) but enough about you.
(LS smiles sarcastically and whips out revolver. Fires at MA who dodges the bullet.)
LS (snapping fingers): Missed again! I need to put in some time at the firing range.
(There is a cry, and from above a body falls with a thud into the dumpster.)
LS: And Jigsaw’s not alone, he’s got a psycho brother named James, better known in mob circles as Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson), who isn’t above ripping out a man’s kidney and eating it right in front of him. Jigsaw springs his crazy brother from a mental hospital as part of his plan to get revenge on Castle for butchering his once-pretty face.
(LS takes out an Uzi and sprays a gang of menacing types who enter the alleyway. Bodies fall everywhere).
MA (nodding his head in approval): You didn’t miss that time.
LS: The plot is pretty simple. Castle lives to kill gangsters. During one of his assaults on the crime families, Castle unknowingly kills an undercover FBI agent. When he finds out he killed one of the “good guys” he goes into a depression and decides to give up vigilantism. But, as we all know, that’s not going to happen, because Jigsaw wants Castle’s head on a platter, and he also wants to make the family of the undercover “rat” suffer. The dead cop’s widow is played by Julie Benz, who plays Rita on the Showtime series DEXTER, and who was also in another movie I recently reviewed for FearZone, SAW V.
The plot is just an excuse to move the movie forward, but really, this thing is nothing more than an ultraviolent cartoon. After two failed attempts to make the character “mainstream” and bring him to the big screen, this movie is one for the hardcore fans. It’s just an excuse for violence, gore and mayhem. And frankly. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
I was actually shocked at how much this movie earns its R rating. There are exploding heads, heads sliced off with knives, faces caved in by fists, blood-spurting bullet wounds, and lots of other wonderful effects, to show us just how much of an unrestrained killing machine Frank Castle can be.
And like I said, Dominic West is actually pretty terrific as Jigsaw. Where Stevenson’s Castle is all dark, brooding seriousness as he calmly goes around firing off his seemingly unlimited arsenal of weapons, Jigsaw is almost like a character from another movie. You’d think someone whose face was turned into ground beef might be intense and more than a little scary, but despite his repulsive visage, Jigsaw actually seems kind of funny. Like one of those quirky Dick Tracy villains. In fact, in a lot of ways, PUNISHER WAR ZONE reminded me of DICK TRACY (1990) on crystal meth.
(More baddies enter the alleyway. LS pulls out a rocket launcher and blasts them to kingdom come)
LS (to MA): I’m really surprised you’re letting me talk so long.
MA: You’re doing such a wonderful job, why would I want to interrupt? Besides, you’ve been a fan of the character for a long time – and you know a lot about him.
Not to mention, you’ve got guns.
LS: What’s that supposed to mean? That I’d shoot you if you interrupted me?
MA: I don’t know, you wrote that line! (laughs).
LS: Good one. Back to the movie.
Other characters include Dash Mihok as a really dumb cop named Martin Soap -who was the only character who annoyed me at times—.
MA: Oh yes, Martin Soap. I found him very annoying and wouldn’t have minded if he hadn’t been in the film. His dopiness stood out in this movie like a severed thumb.
LS: And Colin Salmon as Paul Budiansky, an FBI agent and a friend of the undercover agent who got killed, and who is initially as hungry to capture Castle as Jigsaw is. Of course, eventually Budiansky comes around to the Punisher’s way of thinking.
Another big reason why this movie worked for me can be found in the Punisher’s origin story. In the comics, Vietnam veteran Frank Castle returns home from his tour of duty and reunites with his family. One day, while the Castle family is in the park having a picnic, his kids accidentally stumble upon a mob execution. They’re spotted and Castle’s kids and wife are murdered, and Castle is badly injured. But he lives. And from that point on, he only lives to kill the bastards who took his family away from him. This is easily one of the most cinematic origins in comics history.
MA: Right up there with young Bruce Wayne seeing his parents killed.
LS: In the 1989 Dolph Lundgren movie, Frank Castle is a cop who wants revenge on the bastards who killed his partner. In the 2004 movie, Frank is an undercover cop who wants revenge when mobsters kill his family at a reunion (after they find out he’s a cop). For some reason, both movies felt the need to alter Castle’s origin dramatically, and neither film improved on the basic, powerful, true origin. In fact, both films dilute his origin to the point of neutering the character.
The point is, Castle is not a cop. He does not work within the confines of the law. He is a soldier.
MA: Good point.
LS: In PUNISHER WAR ZONE, Frank gets to keep his real origin, although we see it only on flashbacks. This is not an origin film, like most “superhero” movies. In fact, when WAR ZONE opens, Frank has been killing mobsters for four years, and has not yet been apprehended. Secretly, the police like the fact that he cleans up the city in ways they’re not allowed to.
(A chain-wielding gang of criminals enters the alleyway, hooting and hollering. LS reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Patriot Missile, which he fires at them, destroying half the neighborhood).
LS: Where was I?
The Punisher’s origins go back to the 1970s. He was originally introduced in the pages of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN as a villain hired to take out Spidey. But he proved so popular that he took on a life of his own, and became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes. Needless to say, where characters like Batman and Spider-Man have a moral code they stick by, which prevents them from taking a life, the Punisher’s code is a lot more twisted. Where a superhero like IRON MAN may appeal to FearZone fans, he’s not really a horror character. However, the Punisher, as a mass murderer, a serial killer, and a borderline psychotic, bring us into much darker territory.
As you can tell, I really dug this little flick, and found myself enjoying the ride a lot. There were other hardcore fans in the audience I saw it with, too, who laughed in the right spots, and enjoyed the blood-stained thrill ride that is PUNISHER WAR ZONE. And it’s funny that it took a female director, former stuntwoman and kickboxer Lexi Alexander, to finally do a Punisher movie right.
And if it’s not obvious yet, I’m one of those hardcore fans. Hell, the first tattoo I ever got was of the Punisher’s skull logo. Nice to finally have a movie that’s not an embarrassment.
Another aspect I really enjoyed about this movie was that while I was watching it, I knew Michael would despise PUNISHER WAR ZONE. I have to admit, that gave me a real chuckle.
So Michael, what did you think of it?
MA (chuckling): Well, the laugh is on you, because, believe it or not, I didn’t despise PUNISHER WAR ZONE. I wanted to, believe me, because I agree with you about the film earning its R rating. There was enough blood spilled in this one movie to make a vampire orgasm, and then some! I found myself shaking my head and asking “why do movie audiences need to see violence like this?” We don’t.
LS (looks puzzled): WE don’t? Speak for yourself, pilgrim.
MA: I’m speaking for the general movie-going public. As you said, this movie will appeal most to hardcore fans like yourself. To the average viewer, the violence in this film is going to be too disturbing. Yet, there was a lot to like about this film, and I did indeed like it, which means perhaps that it’s better than even you gave it credit for.
I had not seen the previous two Punisher movies, but I was still looking forward to seeing this one since I enjoy action films like the next guy.
(Suddenly a crowd of construction workers drinking beer appear behind MA & LS, roaring “Guy movies!!!!” LS fires his Uzi up in the air, and they run away. Several more bodies and body parts fall into the dumpster.)
However, as you know, I don’t like over-the-top violence for no reason, so I had my reservations.
LS: In other words, you’re a wimp.
MA: No, I just have taste. Show me a mindless bloodbath, and I’m going to stop watching. Show me something more, and I’m in. PUNISHER WAR ZONE showed me something more. Yes, the violence was horrific, too horrific for my liking. Watching heads sliced off with knives and organs eaten by a crazy villain a la Hannibal Lecter is not my cup of tea. (Lifts mug to his lips and sees bubbling red blood inside. Frowns and moves to toss it.)
LS: Don’t throw it away! Let me have it. (Takes mug and drinks). Yummy!
MA: Yes, that’s much more to your liking. I’ll stick with green tea. (Sips new mug). Much better. Anyway, back to the Punisher. I didn’t like the violence at all, but the acting, direction, script, and overall feel of the film more than made up for the bloody violence.
My favorite part of this movie was the writing, which is a funny thing to say about a grisly horror-action flick, but I thought the script by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway was extremely well-written. My favorite part was that it did not cheat the audience. There were no cheap twists, which is hard to do with a story where the villain claims to have both the NYPD and the Feds in his pocket. There weren’t any of the cliché “Surprise! I’m really a bad guy!” scenes in the movie.
Like you, I really enjoyed the characters. I thought Ray Stevenson was terrific as Frank Castle. He was menacing, relentless, and unstoppable. He reminded me a bit of the Terminator, only darker. I didn’t find him as psychotic as you did, however, and I don’t think I’d describe him as a serial killer. I didn’t get the sense, based upon the way he was portrayed in this movie, anyway, that he enjoyed killing. He just seemed duty-bound to kill every mobster in his path.
Like you, I also really enjoyed Dominic West as Jigsaw, more than I want to admit, and you were right about him keeping his sense of humor. He was quite funny, in spite of being a monster. I thought Jigsaw’s make-up after his accident was sufficiently grotesque as well.
But, to me, the overall success of PUNISHER WAR ZONE belongs to director, Lexi Alexander. She films some really intense action sequences, even though I would have preferred them with less blood. She also gives this movie a slick polished looked which at times reminded me of SIN CITY.
LS: This isn’t a Stanley Kubrick or a Martin Scorsese movie. There’s no pretense here of making great art. It’s an uber-violent cartoon. And on that level, it works. It also doesn’t pull any punches. While Stevenson does protect Benz and win her over, and Benz’s young daughter actually looks up to Frank, these elements do not push the movie into sappy territory. There’s no need for some romantic storyline to make this more palatable to mainstream audiences. These scenes simply seek to humanize Frank a little between shooting sprees.
It’s not any more than it claims to be. And I enjoyed its gory goodness.
MA: Well, I’m happy for you and the 666 other fans who agree with you. For the rest of us, PUNISHER WAR ZONE is an extremely violent, bloody movie that is also extremely well made. It’s a fine example of what creative directing, excellent writing, and solid acting can do with material that in lesser hands could have been discarded in the gross-out-for-no-good-reason dumpster. I liked it, and I think our audience out there should go see it. Just be prepared for lots and lots of blood and gore.
LS (licks his lips): I’m really surprised you liked this one. But seriously, if you wish this movie had less blood and violence, then you’re kind of missing the whole point of why it exists in the first place.
MA: It exists to make money, but that’s beside the point. I like PUNISHER WAR ZONE just the way it is, but had it been less violent, I would have liked it more because it would have appealed to me more. It’s as simple as that.
LS: This movie isn’t for everyone, but if you like how we’ve described this flick, then you probably should go see it.
(Large ogre-looking creatures in battle armor and muscular cyborgs roar into the alleyway. LS pulls out a nuclear warhead and fires it at them, setting off a huge mushroom cloud over their heads).
MA (looking at cloud): Not good.
LS: I’m gonna go see PUNISHER WAR ZONE again. What are you going to do now?
MA: Get tested for radiation poisoning maybe. This is definitely not good.
MA: You meat-head, you just detonated a nuclear warhead. You’ve attracted the attention of the world, and then some! Look! (points to sky).
(An immense spaceship hovers above them, filling the entire sky above their heads.)
LS: Bring it on, alien boy!
(To Be Continued Tomorrow with the Review of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.)
(First published on Fear Zone on 12/8/09)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares