While the first two Punisher movies, starring Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane in the lead roles, were fun on their own terms, neither one really captured the spirit of the comic books that they were supposedly based on. This time around, with Punisher: War Zone, however, Hollywood has finally managed to deliver a Punisher movie that feels just like a Punisher movie should.
The film follows Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson), a man who was out for a picnic with his wife and son one day and who happened to witness a mob hit. The mob, never pleased with events like this, opened fire on the Castle family and sent all but Frank to their graves. With nothing else to live for, Frank decides to arm himself to the teeth and with the help of his friend and weapons supplier, Microchip (Wayne Knight), wage a war on crime. Taking care of the criminals who fall through the cracks of the legal system, Castle's managed to accumulate a pretty massive body count, but the N.Y.P.D. tends to turn a blind eye to his activities until one night Castle accidently kills Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari), an undercover F.B.I. agent trying to infiltrate the gang run by Billy Russoti (Dominic West).
When the feds learn that Castle has killed one of their own, they send Special Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) to work with Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) to bring Castle in for good. Meanwhile, Billy Russoti, whose face was mangled during the incident and who now calls himself Jigsaw, wants revenge. He springs his brother, James (Doug Hutchinson), better known as Loony Bin Jim, from the local asylum and decides he's going to take out Donatelli's widow, Angela (Julie Benz) and daughter, Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) and then the Punisher himself. On top of that, Russoti is in the middle of a deal with the Russian mob involving some biological weapons, a deal that the feds and N.Y.P.D. alike absolutely do not want to happen.
While the plot is fairly thin, there's enough meat on the bones of the plot to work. Each of the central characters has sufficient motivation that their actions make sense and with the plot established and the characters set up, director Lexi Alexander wisely chooses to not waste anymore time and get on with the action. Sure there are a couple of sentimental flashbacks in the movie, but those serve to remind us that there is a living, breath, feeling human being underneath the skull emblazoned Kevlar armor. The real heart of this film is in its action scenes and it is in these scenes that the picture really excels. Like Rambo, this is a picture that pulls no punches. When Castle kills someone, he really kills them. A face is punched in (literally), throats are slit, a head is cut of, brains are blown out, there are squibs galore and in one remarkably ridiculous scene a balletic gang banger is blown up, mid maneuver, by a rocket launcher. The violence in the film is hard hitting and completely over the top - just as it should be!
Equally as ridiculous are the film's villains. Dominic West and Doug Hutchinson are having so much malicious fun as Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim that, while you want the Punisher to take them down, you can't help but want them to come back for a sequel. These guys play the parts with completely unwarranted but very welcome enthusiasm, playing everything to the hilt - the mannerisms, the New Yawk accents - to the point where they are literally comic book villains incarnate. Stevenson's Frank Castle is perfect in the lead, bringing a nice sense of brooding menace to the character and scowling his way through the film just as you'd want him too. He's kind of a scary guy and, even if he is nice to Grace and her mother and even if he does have feelings, he looks like he's about ready to go off at any given moment in time.
Helping the over the top performances and ultra violence immensely is some fantastic camerawork and lighting. There are large portions of the movie that are bathed in Bava-esque primary colors, really upping the comic book come to life aesthetic that Alexander was obviously going for here. It works, and it works well. Not only does the movie zip along at a great pace but it looks fantastic doing so. The plot might be a bit thin and it might not be a particularly original film (it's a lot like Death Wish with healthy doses of Mack Bolen thrown in for good measure and turned up to eleven) but it sure is a Hell of a lot of good, nasty fun. It may not have set the box office on fire when it played theaters last year but there's no accounting for some people's taste - this movie is a blast, literally.
Punisher War Zone arrives on Blu-ray is a slick 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p AVC encoded high definition transfer that look very nice indeed. As mentioned earlier, this is a movie that makes use of a very deliberate color scheme, painting it's scene of carnage in candy coated hues of red, yellow and green and this transfer replicates that look perfectly. Black levels are nice and strong and shadow detail remains strong throughout the film, which is important when as much of the movie takes place at night as it does with this film. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there aren't any obvious problems with mpeg compression or edge enhancement to report. Detail is strong throughout the film, especially in the close up shots, and sharpness and contrast appear dead as intended. Lionsgate has done a great job with the picture quality on this release.
The primary audio option on this disc is a blistering 24-bit English language DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track, though a standard definition French language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is also included. Subtitles are offered in English, English SDH and Spanish. But let's get back to that DTS-HD 7.1 track - in short, wow. This track is fantastic. The few subtle, quieter moments in the film, such as Castle's talk with Grace on the front porch, demonstrate nice, clear dialogue while the action scenes present every gunshot and bone breaking punch with succinct clarity. Bass response is nice and strong without overpowering the higher end of the mix and the constant channel separation is well directed and really enhances the action. Levels are properly balanced and there are no problems to report with even the faintest hint of hiss or distortion. All of this results in an incredibly engrossing and enveloping track - this is 'demo disc' material here.
The extras start off with a commentary track that features director Lexi Alexander and director of photography Steve Gainer. This is a pretty decent track that spends a fair bit of time talking about how they wanted to stay true to the spirit of the comic books that influenced the movie. At one point Alexander does mention that she shot footage that was taken out that should be reinstated in a director's cut - something to consider - but the bulk of the track, which is fairly scene specific, talks about the look of the movie, the script, and the casting. The pair have a good sense of what kind of movie they've made here, they don't have any false aspirations about making an art house classic or anything like that, and it's refreshing to hear their take on the picture and it's origins.
From there, delve into the featurettes that Lionsgate have included on this release starting with Training To Become The Punisher which is roughly six minutes of behind the scenes footage showing the training program that Ray Stevenson underwent to get into shape for the role - it's pretty intense stuff. The Making Of Punisher: War Zone, which is just shy of ten minutes, is a pretty standard 'making of' piece that features interviews with the cast and crew, the director and some of the producers. Alexander at one point refers to Stevenson as a Tim Bradstreet cover come to life, which is why she wanted him for the part. Creating The Look Of Punisher: War Zone is a brief three minute sequence that explores how the crew went about creating the film's comic book world while Meet Jigsaw is a quick interview with Dominic West that explores his performance and explains the make up effects used to turn him into Jigsaw. Last but not least, Weapons Of The Punisher is a four minute piece that provides some detail into the various weapons that the Punisher and his foes use in the film.
Rounding out the extras on the first disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, trailers for a bunch of other, unrelated Lionsgate properties, animated menus and chapter selection. All of the extra features are presented in HD and this disc is also 'MoLog' enabled, meaning that those with a Blu-ray live capable player can insert and animate shapes, text and objects into the film and then share the results with others online. This seems like kind of an odd thing to include, but it's here if you want it.
This Blu-ray release also includes a second disc which contains a digital copy of the film.
While the extras are light on this release, the video quality is great and the audio quality is even better. As for the movie itself? The third time's the charm. Punisher: War Zone finally gets it right and delivers the kind of Punisher movie that fans have been waiting years for, one that feels true to the comic book, that moves at a good pace and that doesn't deviate from the traits and characteristics that make the character what he is. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.