Punisher War Zone? More like Punisher BORE Zone!
Nah, that was not sincere punning. Actually I was not bored and in fact enjoyed this stupid movie. What I mean to say is “The Punisher? More like The FUNisher!” But you know how it is, people tend to prefer negativity to positivity. That’s why there’s three movies called THE PUNISHER and not a single one called THE REWARDER. So I went the extra mile, I gave you both types of puns. Merry Christmas.
The Punisher is a unique motion picture phenomenon. Not too many characters are in movies three times, with three different actors, three different directors, three different approaches. Not sequels or remakes, each one is a do-over. I can relate to this type of series because I myself am a unique motion picture phenomenon: I am the rare individual who sort of enjoyed all three versions of THE PUNISHER. That’s three more Punisher movies than most people are able to enjoy in their lifetime. In fact I would like to see them continue to remake THE PUNISHER every few years, every time with different actors, every time believing they totally fucked it up all the previous times but this time, this time they’ll get it right, I just know it! If they give up after this one, though, at least we got a trilogy.
The PUNISHER WAR ZONE Punisher is played by Ray Stevenson, who was apparently on that show ROME. He’s by far the scariest Punisher, he looks like he could smash his fist right into the center of your skull, which is in fact what he does to a mobster who looks like Lance Bass. This is a huge lumbering Punisher about two or three inches taller than Bigfoot and usually decked out in full combat gear including bulletproof vest that covers the neck and lower jaw. (Although occasionally he just wears a sweater.) This is a scary motherfucker but also the most comical of the Punishers because everything about him is so over the top that sometimes just looking at him made me laugh. Sometimes he kind of reminded me of Patrick Warburton who, come to think of it, should be considered for the fourth Punisher movie. I don’t know man, seeing a big monster like that so passionately dedicated to killing – and I mean REALLY fucking killing – is kind of funny to me. He’s a huge nerd for murdering everybody.
He’s funny because even more than any previous Punisher, this guy DOES. NOT. GIVE. A FUCK. He opens the movie preparing weapons, then he casually walks into a mansion and horribly massacres an entire mafia dinner table, including wives. I don’t think they even got a chance to say grace. (that would’ve kind of made the scene funnier though.)
In the fine tradition of Blade he also doesn’t mind walking around in public covered in weapons. He has kind of a Batcave/flop house set up under a subway tunnel, and that traitorous fat dude from JURASSIC PARK comes by to bring him guns sometimes.
Of course you get some flashes of memory to remind you that his family was slaughtered, and also there is a little girl who likes him and wants to hold his hand even though he killed her dad by accident (whoops). There’s not much more than that to try to give him depth, but Stevenson does have some sad looking eyes that almost imply some tragic beauty or something like that. And the funniest thing about him is that even though he looks like (and is) a guy who would go around causing even lower-tier criminals to literally explode, he cannot hide an intelligence and eloquence in his voice. The motherfucker sounds like a poet. He’s got a soul. I guess that explains why we saw him in the graveyard crying like a baby before we even heard him say anything.
I like the scene where he tries to apologize to the widow of the undercover cop he killed (Julie Benz from RAMBO ) by giving her a bag of money. Most of the movie is more about funny violence than character moments, but there are bits here and there. It’s a cliche for a violent character like this to go into a church looking for forgiveness, but they put a good spin on it in this one. It’s revealed that he was once in the seminary and knows the Bible surprisingly well. The best part is when the priest quotes to him the verse about how you will be judged the way you judge others and he says he doesn’t have a problem with that – in other words he’s resigned himself to a violent death himself and knows he deserves it. A nice touch.
Then they put the cherry on top with the classic so bad it’s good/so good it’s bad line “Sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God.” Unfortunately there aren’t enough funny lines like that in the movie, but let’s at least appreciate that one, even if we already saw it in the trailer.
I can’t help but compare this to the other two Punishers, so I will have to say at this point that I liked #2, the Thomas Jane one, the best. Admittedly it’s gonna be hard to go back and watch that one now for the simple fact that Ray Stevenson could probaly swallow Thomas Jane’s head in one bite and not even gag. But it had the best combination of character and storytelling and the cartoonish flights into absurdism were a little more grounded in an old school action movie world like I like and not in the type of artificial soundstage world of the Lundgren and Stevenson editions. I have learned through talkback research that fans of the comic strip are enraged that Thomas Jane Punisher took place in Tampa, because EVERYBODY knows that this story can ONLY take place in New York City just like every god damn movie ever made.
Well, okay, New York is mean streets and everything but not as much when the “New York” is a fake looking one shot in Montreal. At least Tampa was shot in Tampa, and is therefore in the same country that your precious comic strip took place in.
It’s hard to think of it as a real action movie when alot of it is shot with yellow and red lights to make it look like a cartoon world, and the villain Jigsaw (whose face becomes a human Leatherface mask after Punisher teaches him about how glass bottles are recycled) is one of those trying-to-be-funny overacting villains, not the scary type. For example when he unites the different gangs against Punisher there is a “funny” scene where he makes a “patriotic” speech in front of an American flag background. One of those parodies of parodies I’m so sick of.
The actor by the way is Dominic West, who’s only bad part of the time and apparently is great on THE WIRE. Still, it’s weird that John Travolta is the more subtle and restrained villain of these movies. How the fuck did that happen?
I’ve seen a few claims that this is the Punisher movie that “finally does it right,” but I don’t really understand what that means. As far as I can tell it’s very similar to the Lundgren version. They both start with the Punisher already in operation, headquartered underground in New York City, with a task force trying to track him, they both have ludicrously high body counts and cartoonish violence, they both try to show Punisher’s sensitive side by having him help children. In this one there are some characters who are supposed to be meth addicted parkour dudes (somebody calls them an “urban freeflow gang”) – isn’t that a 2008 take on the type of gimmicks they had in the first one (ninjas on slides, throwing star earrings, etc.)? And like that first one they fail to really deliver on the promise of the gimmick, because they kill them without ever doing any impressive freerunning stunts at all. It does lead to a big crowdpleasing laugh when Punisher comes after them, though, so it’s not a total loss.
The appeal is similar to a bad/good slasher movie like SEE NO EVIL or some of the Jason pictures. You laugh at the utter ridiculousness and callousness of the violence. Punisher impales a guy on a spikey fence, then jumps onto his head. He impales a guy’s face on a chair leg. He runs into a fat guy in an elevator (I guess I missed who that was supposed to be) and blows his head off. He picks people up and bashes them through windows and walls, drags people by the ankles, lights people on fire. He blows up a room full of gangsters, then goes out and shoots the bodies. What I’m saying is this is a guy that just overdoes it. And you can’t even say he takes pleasure in overdoing it, because he doesn’t seem to take pleasure in anything. He just doesn’t know how to stop. He has an addictive personality maybe. They say he does this because of what happened to his family and maybe because he’s a veteran but I’m betting his daddy was a drinker too.
A movie like SEE NO EVIL pretends you’re not supposed to root for the killer, PUNISHER WAR ZONE openly presents him as the hero, which is a good joke. At first I wondered how exactly he could get away with all this, but then you realize all the cops just let him go because they like what he does. There’s one FBI agent who is ethical, but he can’t keep Punisher in line and keeps pouting with frustration. He’s like the man with the yellow hat trying to keep Curious George out of trouble.
When I read about how violent and ridiculous the movie was I thought it sounded pretty good, or pretty terrible. Some of the internet writers who raved about this also loved hyperactive movies like CRANK. Although this has a similarly juvenile love of cruelty, I don’t think it’s obnoxious in that same way. The opening credits had me nervous, but the camera and editing work turn out to be restrained, it doesn’t have all that showoffy shit that ruins some movies like this. It does have a schizophrenic soundtrack though, going between a score that I think is a little too big and serious and shitty heavy metal that’s a little too “hey kids, do you like my cool earring? See I’m not old I’m just like you homeys.”
I do mean it when I say this movie is stupid. It relies too much on the sadistic spectacle part without excelling in other areas. The other two Punisher movies prove you can do both – you can be lowbrow and ridiculous and still have a better story and dialogue than this. And the look is a little cheesy. But it is a good laugh and although by the time you read this it might be too late for you, I recommend seeing it with whatever small crowd can be mustered up for it. When I saw it everybody was together in laughing, sometimes with the movie, sometimes (I believe) at it. And it’s refreshing to see a movie with this tone but NOT with the obnoxious editing and camera techniques that these days tend to be a given.
I’m afraid this might be the last try at a Punisher movie but at the very least I hope somebody sees Ray Stevenson in this and decides to cast him as the hero in other action movies. He’s menacing, he seems smart, he can act and yet apparently he’s not above doing this type of shit. That’s a good combination for an action hero.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.