Let's be honest with each other. Anyone who did not have low expectations going into Punisher: War Zone was pretty much an idiot. Sure, some of the trailers looked pretty cool--especially the red band trailer--but that wasn't really enough to make up for the fact that there were two other film incarnations of Marvel Comics' vigilante, and both of those sucked. But when I watched this most recent version in theaters back when it was released in 2008, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the film may have paled in comparison to other '08 comic book movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, but taken on its own, and judged by its own merits, Punisher: War Zone was at the very least an entertaining diversion. (What follows is an updated version of my theatrical review.)
Really, when you stop and think about it, there really isn't a character better suited for an easy transition from the comic book page to the movie screen than Marvel's Punisher. Loaded down with enough fire power to stop an army, decked out in a black outfit emblazoned with a skull, and no super powers other than the ability to kill criminals, the Punisher is about as no-frills as comic book characters get. There's no convincing a movie audience he can fly, or that he transforms into a giant green monster, or that he has enhanced strength from being bitten by a spider. But despite the simplicity of the character, the last two attempts at bringing the Punisher to life--an idiotic 1988 adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren and an even more abysmal 2004 version starring Thomas Jane--have ranked among the more craptacular comic book movies. And those two miserable failures are either enough to make you wonder why anyone would make another Punisher movie, or give you cynical hope that at least there's nowhere to go but up.
Following in the latest Hollywood trend of restarting franchises with pseudo-sequels to earlier failures, Punisher: War Zone is to the bad 2004 Punisher what this year's Incredible Hulk was to 2003's disappointing Hulk. Both films were not so much sequels as they were attempts to correct some really bad decisions that resulted in movies that were not that fun to watch. Irish actor Ray Stevenson takes over the lead role of ex-special forces operative Frank Castle, who loses his wife and children to a Mafia massacre after they witness a brutal gang execution. With nothing to live for, and bent on destroying organized crime, Castle arms himself to the teeth, and stalks the underworld as the take-no-prisoners Punisher. With the mob afraid of him, and the cops turning a blind eye to him, Castle is pretty much left to do what he does best--amass a massive body count of bad guys. But when the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover federal agent, he begins to question his actions. But as fate would have it, gangster Billy Russoti (Dominick West) is looking for his missing money--money last seen in the hands of the agent killed by Castle. With his face terribly disfigured after an encounter with the Punisher, Russoti, now calling himself Jigsaw, goes after the wife and daughter of the murdered agent. Despite his desire to give up his life of splattering the brains of criminals all over the place, Castle refuses to sit by as Jigsaw wrecks havoc, which of course means it's only a matter of time before the hot lead starts flying and the bodies start dropping.
Punisher: War Zone, while being a ways away from great cinema, is a vast improvement over the two earlier Punisher movies. Ray Stevenson, looking like a Punisher drawing by legendary comic book artist Tony DeZuniga, is well suited for the role. Perhaps the only other actors right for the role would be Tommy Lee Jones about twenty years ago or Tom Berenger around the time he basically played the same role in The Substitute. Stevenson brings a nice steely grit to the character, and a look of determined intensity that doesn't need pointless dialog to prove a point. In fact, Stevenson goes just over twenty minutes before uttering a single word--a nice touch in establishing the Punisher as a no-nonsense man of few words, reminiscent of Charles Bronson in the western classic Chato's Land.
The rest of the cast of Punisher: War Zone is pretty inconsequential, the notable exception being Dominic West, who gives an over-the-top performance that outdoes all others in a film full of over-the-top performances. In fact, restraint is something not to be found in most of Punisher: War Zone, as the cast delivers ham-fisted dialog in heavy New Yawka accents. That's not to say the script is terrible--especially compared to earlier versions of the Punisher--but this isn't screenwriting at its finest, either. The problem here is that the film feels like it's trying to prove that it is adapted from a comic book by playing into the notion of what a comic book is. Everyone involved has clearly studied other super hero movies, without really considering the fact that Punisher is not a real superhero. The Punisher is not Spider-Man or even Batman; he's Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Robert Forster in Vigilante. It would be nice if the films reflected that a bit more, and instead drew inspiration from other comic-to-film adaptations like A History of Violence.
Part of what makes the Punisher such an interesting character in the comic book world is the way he interacts with super-powered heroes like Spider-Man and Daredevil. Comic fans know that Punisher is seldom more interesting when he goes toe-to-toe with masked heroes who can't bring themselves to cross the same line he doesn't give a second thought to. This creates a great conflict that has propelled some of the best Punisher stories. But you can't do that in a film, because there are no costumed heroes for the Punisher to play off of in the movie world. This is why Punisher: War Zone, and if there are any other entries in the franchise, would be better served by scaling back the comic book-ish nature of Frank Castle's screen persona in favor of something more grounded in reality. The Punisher is, after all, a crime book, not a superhero book.
For what it is, Punisher: War Zone is entertaining. It is a B, or perhaps a B-minus grade entry in the world of films based on comic books. But considering how bad the earlier Punisher films were, as well as junk like Daredevil and Ghost Rider, there's a certain comfort in knowing that this movie is not as bad as it could have been. Is that a ringing endorsement? No, it is not. But if you like the Punisher, or if you like fairly brainless tales of vigilantes on a killing rampage that are punctuated with excessive violence and splatter-happy gore, then this film will do the trick. And it's also worth noting that the film holds up to repeated viewings, although what were weak points during my first viewing did not get any better. But what does get better with multiple screenings is Stevenson's performance, which is the foundation upon which the entire film is built. In fact, Stevenson is so strong that I would actually like to see another film in the franchise, provided he returns in the role (although the poor performance at the box office might have been the final nail in this franchise).