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Punisher: War Zone

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // March 17, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Punisher: War Zone is a flick where the lead badnik is ground up with a couple hundred thousand glass bottles in a recycling plant and stitched back together with chunks of horsehide. One of his flunkies is leaping from rooftop to rooftop up until The Punisher aims a missile launcher his way and blasts him into bloodied, fist-sized chunks. When Big Pun' slugs some schlub, his fist tears clean through his face. You're looking at point-blank shotgun blasts, knives stabbing through heads like a half-rotten pumpkin on Halloween, twenty story impalings, a rocket chucked into a room fat-packed with gangbangers that flings one of their noggins plummeting through a piece of rebar poking out of the wall, a cannibalistic nutjob straight out of the looney bin gunning down baby dolls and flinging himself into every mirror in a posh lobby, a grenade-in-a-bucket, pan-seared wiseguy, a wheelchair-bound Don Corleone-type whose head is lopped off...and the drive-in totals just keep rambling on from there.

War Zone shrugs off the other two stabs at bringing The Punisher to the big screen, and it doesn't bother with the sort of glossy, PG-13 superheroics that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk churn out. No, this is a movie that earns its R-rating and then some, and it's directed by a female German kickboxer, fer cryin' out loud. I'd call it a slasher flick with a heavier artillery if Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger could ever hope to rack up this kind of body count. Punisher: War Zone is grimy, gritty, and sloshing around in a couple barrel drums of sticky stage blood. It doesn't bother trying to doll The Punisher up as a hero-type; he's shown as being every bit as much of a psychopath as the batshit crazy butchers in his laser sight. There's no love interest, Ray Stevenson is barely saddled with any dialogue or all that much in the same voting district as characterization in his turn as The Punisher, and the flick really doesn't even bother with dangling subplots. It's the sort of unhinged, unrelenting, deliriously violent action flick that Cannon wished they could've sent making the rounds across 42nd St. back in the mid-'80s. War Zone doesn't flinch away from the savage brutality or hide it with jagged jump cuts. Reproducing blood-spattered imagery from the original
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comics panel-for-panel, Punisher: War Zone is so visually striking that it manages to put the "gore" back in "gorgeous".

Really, I could stop the review right there. You're either up for this sort of gloriously deranged hyperviolence or you're not, and it's not as if some rambling write-up of the plot is going to change your mind. I mean, the script keeps it simple: The Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is on a mission to kill every last criminal and thug skulking the dark, dank back alleys of New York City, and Jigsaw (Dominic West) -- well, once what's left of him is pieced back together after being sliced apart in a recycling plant's glass grinder -- is one of 'em. I mean, there's a little extra color with The Punisher racked with guilt about gunning down a fed, and that gives Lionsgate an excuse to fork yet another paycheck over to Julie Benz who turns up here as a grieving, gun-totin' widow, but none of that really gets in the way. It's a couple of over-the-top psychopaths being chased down by a nutjob with a skull on his chest and a couple dozen pistols and machine guns covering every square inch of his body.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Punisher: War Zone is some sort of magnificent achievement that redefines the art of cinema or what-the-hell-ever, but it's sadistically close to what a Punisher flick ought to be. The dialogue doesn't sparkle, nah, and some of the stabs at comedy are weak, but who cares? My only real gripe is that the pace drags in the middle when War Zone briefly gets distracted by that emaciated skeleton of a story, but otherwise...? Unrestrained, unrelenting, and completely unhinged. Garth Ennis would be proud. Recommended.

Punisher: War Zone's intensely stylized visuals carve out a middle ground between the skewed palette of the comic book and the gritty, hardboiled look of the grindhouse set. While some of the edges can look kind of fuzzy, and the weight of the grainy texture can vary wildly from one shot to the next, War Zone's devastating visual eye looks pretty incredible in high-def. Its colors leap from hypersatured to practically monochromatic, contrast is sporadically cranked up to 11, black levels are consistently deep and inky throughout, and there's an extremely strong sense of detail and definition belted out from start to finish. I couldn't spot any hiccups at all with this AVC encode, and the scope image -- nicked straight from the digital intermediate -- doesn't show any signs of clunky processing or filtering. Punisher: War Zone sports a very deliberate, meticulously crafted visual style, and it complements the movie perfectly and translates to Blu-ray remarkably well to boot.

Yeah, Micro's in it, but that's okay. Promise.
With a flick this batshit psychotic, it kinda goes without saying that Punisher: War Zone is packing a hyperaggressive soundtrack. The 24-bit, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is every bit as unrelentingly over-the-top as the movie itself, with sprays of gunfire being peppered from every direction and a whack of an axe sending splatter spewing every which way. Frank Castle couldn't stub his big toe without the subwoofer belching out a 240 decibel, foundation-rattling boom, and somehow, what little dialogue the movie bothers with is balanced cleanly and clearly in the mix. I don't have any gripes.

Rounding out the audio options are a French dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 along with subtitle streams in English (traditional and SDH) and Spanish.

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Director Lexi Alexander quips in her audio commentary that some footage she liked that didn't make it into the theatrical release will show up in a director's cut down the road. Dunno if that really is lurking in the wings or if Alexander's just cracking a joke, but maybe that's why Lionsgate seems to be holding back on the extras here. Although all of the featurettes are in high-def, this isn't all that much of a special edition, and the second disc the cover art brags about is just another digital copy.
  • Audio Commentary: By far the best of the extras on Punisher: War Zone is the commentary track with director Lexi Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer. The D.P. doesn't hesitate to dig into intensely technical notes about how the look of the movie was hammered out, and Alexander talks about struggling with indifferent extras, an inflexibly tight schedule, punishing weather, a microscopic budget, and even the runtime of the flick. A few scattered highlights include the two of them pointing out certain shots lifted directly from the comics, a note that you can't land insurance if you drop an actor into a grinder with actual glass bottles, swapping out the original idea for where Jigsaw landed his name, the chipper, improvisational tone on the set, the lackluster response from the critics, and palling around with the Bubba Blue of machine guns. Their chat covers an enormous amount of ground while still being a heckuva lot of fun to give a listen. Recommended.

  • The Making of Punisher: War Zone (9 min.; HD): This is a straightahead and kinda bland promotional piece, running through the unrelentingly intense action, staying faithful to the comics, suffering through subzero weather, and plowing through a couple hundred pages of casting notes. There's not much meat to gnaw on here.
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  • Meet Jigsaw (3 min.; HD): There's some brief chatter about Dominic West's cacklingly over-the-top turn as Jigsaw, but this featurette is mostly anchored around the prosthetics plastered across his face.

  • Weapons of The Punisher (4 min.; HD): The sprawling arsenal Frank Castle lugs around is highlighted in detail here along with a quick look at the heat the different gangs are packing when the climax rolls around.

  • Training to Become The Punisher (6 min.; HD): Most of the extras on this disc are talking head interviews, but "Training..." keeps it pretty candid, sticking mostly to fly-on-the-wall footage as Ray Stevenson plows through his grueling physical training and Marine-led boot camp.

  • Creating the Look of the Film (3 min.; HD): The last of the featurettes grabs some of the technical notes from the commentary and crams them down to three minutes and change.
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  • MoLog: If you want to draw random shapes, scatter a bunch of text across the screen while the movie plays, and ship it all off to your friends online, you go.

  • Trailers (15 min.; HD): High-def plugs for a few other Lionsgate releases are piled on here along with a trailer for Punisher: War Zone.

  • Digital Copy: You know the drill.

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The Final Word
I'd still give Rambo the nod as the most psychotically violent action flick from the class of '08, but Punisher: War Zone isn't lagging all that far behind. Cacklingly, unflinchingly brutal and slavishly devoted to the original comics, War Zone is essential viewing for fans of Garth Ennis' grindhouse action-inspired run on the book. This stab at unhinged, blood-spattered camp looks and sounds spectacular on Blu-ray, and although the extras are lightweight, at least they're all served up in high-def. Recommended.
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