Going To War (Punisher: War Zone, 2008)
Third times the charm! While I enjoyed the second shot at the Punisher starring Thomas Jane, it appears a lot of people did not agree. The Punisher is one of those tough characters. He is brutally violent and (in large part) that is where his entertainment comes from…how far will he go to take out the underworld? So, for the next attempt at the Punisher, much like the Hulk, they tossed aside the prior film. They dumped Director Jonathan Hensleigh and lead Thomas Jane. They replaced them with Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) and the new Punisher Ray Stevenson (Rome).
Like the Jane version, they draw from a variety of eras of the Punisher. While the plot feels very Garth Ennis, the choice of villain is a character he never used. That being the Len Wein/Ross Andru creation Jigsaw (Dominic West, 300 and the Wire). But they do borrower characters he brought to the series, like the Punisher Task Force-Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Day After Tomorrow) and Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon, Resident Evil & Strikeback).
The film opens with Punisher playing with some adorable kittens…just kidding.
Just kidding..we meet mobster types meeting at a nice looking mansion. Billy (West) steps out of a limo and check himself in the mirror…he is a pretty boy who wants to climb higher in the mob, but he is given no respect by the local “Godfather”. As everyone sits down for dinner, the lights go out. Suddenly a flare is lit and the Punisher runs across the table and chops off the “godfather’s” head. And then the carnage starts… the Punisher takes out the entire house of mobsters, while Detective Soap and his partner are stumbling into the yard…his partner comes across the Punisher…Castle puts his hands over his head and turns around. The officer gives Frank the keys his car.
A chase after Billy results in his apparent death. Martin Soap. Soap is the master of exposition and gets us from Frank’s “origin” to the current scene in about three minutes…giving the viewer everything they need to know.
I won’t lie…this is about as good of a Punisher movie as you will get. It is true to character, completely violent with absurd and over the top villains. Jigsaw gives a huge speech to recruit the gang members in front of screen with a giant American flag projected on it. Hutchison is terrific in the role of Looney Bin Jim…he is uncomfortably menacing…not quite Heath Ledger’s Joker-but still scary all the same. It is a shame Hutchison will be remembered more as the “Old Guy who Married a Teenage Girl”. And you cannot get more over the top in a movie like this than cannibalism. Well, the Punisher does kill 81 people.
Dominic West is no slouch either. He plays Jigsaw and a man gone over the edge, flamboyant in his new-found skin. West brings an appropriate amount of the absurd to the film. Wayne Knight, on the other hand, draws it back. Instead of going for broad humor, he plays Micro as a dedicated soldier trying to provide backup. One of the things that is interesting here is that the filmmakers are clearly using Garth Ennis as a template. Yet Jigsaw is not a villain Ennis ever used.Nor did Micro appear in his work (havibg been dead since the 1990’s. I am always sympathetic to Julie Benz, though her accent seems to slip at times. And hey, what’s not to like about Colin Salmon? Dash Mihok makes a terrific Martin Soap…ineffectual and bumbling, but ultimately in Frank’s corner.
And Stevenson? Wow. He looks like Frank walked out of the comics. He is really imposing, and able to make Frank work in the quieter moments.
The movie works really quite well. Smartly, they put Frank in the role of protecting a family, and it is the interactions with Grace that humanize him. As villains go, they played it smart. In some comics, relate-able villains, or at least villains who see themselves as the heroes are great. But for the Punisher? You need remarkably un-sympathetic villains. At no point can you look at Jigsaw and his men as misunderstood. They are just terrible people and you want Frank to do his job and end them.
There are nice little touches, such as the The Bradstreet Hotel-named for long time Punisher cover artist Tim Bradstreet. The visuals are really nice, with great use of the landscape, and the colors are very vibrant.
The film ends with Frank standing at the top of a set of stairs, behind him a neon cross that says Jesus Saves…the J,E,U & S all flicker out to just leave the word Saves and the screen goes black except for the neon “Saves”. I am not really sure what the director is trying to do with the image. But it looks kind of nifty.
Lexi Alexander did a great job with this interpretation of the character, making a film that effectively captures it’s source material.
Marvel set Punisher aside for film. There was talk a few years back, which I felt seemed like a terrible idea. The only way I saw it working was if you put it on HBO, Starz or Showtime. On the networks there is no way it would be unrecognizable. Of course this was before Netflix and the Daredevil series.