I really loved comic book characters and superheroes as a kid, but my favorites were always the ones that were just normal people who used their skills and talents to elevate themselves to heroes. I liked people who were not aliens or robots or mutants or exposed to cosmic rays or bitten by radioactive animals, but who fought alongside those super-powered individuals anyway.
Naturally, my two favorite superheroes were Batman and The Punisher. And of those two, believe it or not, I actually preferred the Punisher, largely because his comic books were isolated stories, whereas Batman comics pulled from an enormous mythos that I didn't fully understand. Batman was never far from Superman or the rest of the Justice League, but The Punisher, he worked alone.
The Punisher was the the only comic book I had a monthly subscription to, in fact I had subscriptions to The Punisher, Punisher: War Journal, and Punisher: War Zone. I actively collected back-issues of the comic, too. I bother saying all of this only so one thing is clear: I've always really, really wanted a good Punisher movie.
What's interesting to me about The Punisher is how inherently filmable he is. While comic book heroes with really "out there" backstories may struggle to be filmed due to the absurdist nature of their origins, Frank Castle's story is about as grounded and realistic as possible. He's just a man, a war veteran turned police officer, who lost his family in a mob shootout and vowed to devote his life to "punishing" the guilty. This is pretty much every revenge-fantasy action movie ever made. It's Death Wish, Taken, Edge of Darkness, Faster, Death Sentence, or Kill Bill. It's Commando, Die Hard, or Missing in Action. You can take the script from almost any one-man-army action movie from the 80's or 90's, restructure it just a little bit, throw in a prologue where Castle's family is killed, and you've got yourself a decent Punisher flick.
In fact, this is basically what 1989's Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren is. It's not a particularly beloved film, but to be completely honest it was always one of my favorites. It's just a generic action movie with a prologue about Castle's family dying. Then he takes on the mob and, eventually, the Yakuza. Lundgren's Punisher gets quite a lot right, but it lacks the darkness of the comic series. Things go pretty well for Castle, he takes on the mob and kills them, then takes on the Yakuza and kills them too. I hate the scene of him driving the bus full of children, and I hate that the climax of the film hinges on his willingness to work with the enemy.
I always felt like the 1989 Punisher was good, but never truly great, never really in touch with the comic. So when Tom Jane's 2004 Punisher was announced, I was hopeful... at least, until they released this:
That movie was a huge disappointment. First of all, Tom Jane is too much of a pretty boy, The Punisher is a battle-worn psycho, the kind of guy where putting him on the poster would actually drive people away. More importantly, like Lundgren's, this movie skips a lot of the darker stuff from the comics, and is instead a pretty basic actioner. Travolta is distracting and obnoxious, and frankly there's just way too much comedy in the film. Lundgren's Punisher already did all of this, the material wasn't worth exploring again unless it was going to top the 1989 version.
Ultimately, that is why 2008's Punisher: War Zone is excellent. It's exactly what 2004's The Punisher is not. It's an attempt to make a film version of The Punisher that preserves the darker aspects of the comics, that explores the nature of Castle's psyche, and never holds back on the violence. Lundgren's version didn't need to be remade, it needed to be topped, and Punisher: War Zone is the first Punisher film to do so.
Here is why Punisher: War Zone is awesome.
Loyalty to Comics
The very first Punisher film is barely recognizable as a Punisher film. The iconic skull shirt isn't worn, and instead Lundgren wears leather biker clothes and rides a motorcycle everywhere. His enemies are some random mobsters and then some random Yakuza. The man chasing the Punisher is named Jake Berkowitz, Castle's old partner. Aside from Frank's name and the use of the word "Punisher" there is nothing linking this movie to the comic book.
2004's Punisher faces another "just some gangster" villian, though the film introduces the skull t-shirt and actually has one bad guy from the comics, The Russian. The rest of the influence from the comic books seems to come in the form of characters from Welcome Back, Frank, most notably by incorporating characters exclusive to that storyline like Mr. Bumpo and Spacker Dave. These aren't important or mainstay characters, and they're largely cameos.
Punisher: War Zone is another matter entirely. The film's main antagonist is the most recognizable of all of the Punisher's foes, Jigsaw. Presented on film very much like he is in the comics, Jigsaw is completely nuts and completely disfigured. And unlike the 2004 film's video game sequel), this Jigsaw is actually Billy the Beaut, as he's supposed to be. Jigsaw is The Punisher's Lex Luthor or Joker, he's the mainstay antagonist of the series, so making him not just a henchman or cameo character but the film's main villian is huge fanservice.
But it doesn't end there. The Punisher in the comics has a sidekick, Micro, who helps him get weapons, tap phones, hack computers, and otherwise assists The Punisher's murder spree. Lundgren's Punisher had a similar character, a drunk hobo that occasionally spoke in rhyme (wtf), but he was largely useless. War Zone casts Wayne Knight as Micro, and gives him all of his comic book counterpart's abilites.
And, as if those weren't enough, the inept cop that's half-heartedly chasing The Punisher but mostly admires the guy is none other than Martin Soap, whose comic counterpart has the exact same role and characterization. Punisher: War Zone isn't merely an adaptation of a comic book, it is a comic book come to life on the silver screen. It is more loyal to it's source material than Raimi's Spider-Man.
The film takes as its main inspiration the Punisher Max series by Garth Ennis, generally regarded as the best incarnation of The Punisher ever printed. Many of the film's shots are taken straight out of the comic books, and the opening scene of the film, in which The Punisher completely obliterates an entire mob family, is taken almost directly from the very first scene of the very first issue of Punisher Max.
And yes, Ray Stevenson truly looks like Frank Castle. This movie doesn't shy away from it's comic book lineage, it embraces it without being shackled by it.
Darker, Mature Themes
It'd be easy to make a simple action movie out of The Punisher. Frank Castle is a one-man army, so pick a bad guy, give him a million henchmen, and make Frank mow them all down before he can shoot the bad guy. In fact, this is largely what Lundgren and Jane's Punisher films both are. Frank's biggest challenge comes when he faces a guy who is larger and tougher than him physically. These two films are simple exercises in Man vs. Man.
Punisher: War Zone, however, goes deeper into the life of Castle. We spend a great deal of time in his hideout and see how he lives, sustained largely by M.R.E.'s. We get a glimpse of the solitude of the life he lives, and we get a sense of the fact that he doesn't feel any satisfaction from his work, but is simply compelled to do it, almost robotically. He never seems to enjoy killing bad guys, it's just something he has to do.
Most importantly, the film explores the impact of Frank's actions on the real world. Because he's a vigilante operating outside of the law, he isn't privy to the information that law enforcement is. As a result, during one of his assaults, he kills a man who turns out to be an undercover FBI agent. Frank's discovery that he's killed an innocent man devastates him. He's done to a family what mobsters had done to his. He goes to the funeral of the agent, and even goes to the home of the family he left behind and tries to make amends by giving them all of the money he has. The agent's wife rejects the offer, telling him that he can't just pay his way out of his guilt; he has to live with it.
No other Punisher film, and even rarely the comics themselves, explore the kind of impact Frank's actions might actually have. The Punisher is not an action hero, he's never a character you feel sympathy for or even really root for. As a protagonist, he's somewhat contemptible, and only slightly better than those he fights. The other Punisher films tried to shy away from this aspect of the Castle character and turn him into a heroic figure with guns who never smiles, but Punisher: War Zone embraces the main character's antiheroism by making it clear within the first 15 minutes of the film that what Frank Castle is doing is wrong. The Punisher never justifies what happens by saying wars have casualties, or you have to break some eggs to make an omlet, or any other dismissive justification for a single FBI agent dying amidst a sea of mobsters, drug dealers, and violent criminals. Micro tries to justify it in this way, and Castle dismisses it. He owns his fuckup without rationalizing it.
One particularly nice touch is that Castle is presented with a typical Sadistic Choice trope. This is where the hero is forced to choose between two impossible options, maybe sacrificing a loved one or a group of innocents in order to save another. This has been a staple of comic book movies since Richard Donner's Superman. It also happens in Batman Forever; even Raimi's Spider-man has a sadistic choice between Mary Jane and a bus full of children. And each of these movies has something else in common: the hero always avoids the choice and saves both, even in the case of Spider-man where the comic book storyline on which it's based has Parker lose his girlfriend. In Punisher: War Zone, Frank is given a sadistic choice between the family of the agent he killed and Micro. And rather than skirting the choice, Micro dies. He's shot in the head and dies. Castle simply comforts him by saying he won't feel a thing. Fucking brutal.
This Punisher is complex and tortured, not just in the "my family is dead" way but in the "my life is devoid of meaning" kind of way.
The Look of the Film
In terms of shot composition, Punisher: War Zone is one of the most visually interesting comic book films ever made. Joel Schumacher famously shot his two Batman films using bright colors and lots of neon because he wanted it to visually look like a comic book. The effect is noticable and jarring. When you picture "Batman and Robin" in your mind, you probably see lots of bright, vivid, comic-book colors. Punisher: War Zone adopts the same tactic: using a color palette reminiscent of a comic book, but mixes the colors into shadows and backgrounds in a way that gives the film an aura of comic book inspiration without ever distracting the viewer. Picture Punisher: War Zone and you probably picture a lot of darkness and shadow, but the film is not actually dark and shadowy. On the contrary, the film is bright and vivid in terms of its color, but it plays with the colors in a way that is nearly imperceptible.
Look at how beautifully shot this movie is:
I actually had a hard time when I went through to pick these, because there were about 100 more snapshots I took in the folder and I couldn't decide which ones to trim out. Almost the entire film is stunning to look at.
But despite how visually striking all of these shots are, you never notice when you're actually watching the movie. Unlike with Schumacher's neon, the mise en scène gives one a feeling of watching an unreality from a comic book, without explicitly drawing the connection. It is deftly handled.
Violent As Fuck
Look, The Punisher is supposed to be ridiculously violent and gory. The Punisher MAX especially so. The other Punisher films held back, they had gunfights and explosions but very little actual violence.
The very first person The Punisher kills in Punisher: War Zone is a wheelchair-bound old man. The very second person he kills is a woman. The movie takes no time at all to establish that there will be nothing held back and nothing off limits. In fact, while the same old man character is merely shot in Punisher MAX, he is decapitated with a knife in Punisher: War Zone. Director Lexi Alexander wants to tell the audience, immediately, that this Punisher film will be different, and it's going to be violent as all hell.
The Punisher kills 87 people in the movie, in all manner of gruesome ways, many of which come straight out of the comics. For comparison, 2004's Punisher kills 22 people. Rambo in First Blood II kills 82.
I do have to mention, most of the blood in the film is obvious CGI blood, which I loathe. I don't understand why they had to ruin the great violence with phony-looking CGI, it's a real shame.
I don't want to come across as arguing that Punisher: War Zone is actually a great film or something. It's violent schlock, largely a fanservice movie for people who love The Punisher and were unsatisfied with the previous film incarnations.
The film isn't without flaw by any stretch. As I mentioned, I hate the CGI blood. Beyond that, while I love the inclusion of Jigsaw, I found the performance too comical. I think Jigsaw would have worked better as over-the-top-evil, rather than just over-the-top. Dominic West continually questioned Lexi Alexander's directions to be so ridiculous, and she kept telling him to keep at it. I don't think Jigsaw could have come off as scary as Ledger's Joker, but the phony Brooklyn accent just made the character too much comic relief, which didn't work when set against Ray Stevenson's dead-serious portrayal of The Punisher.
This may seem like a minor nitpick, but I absolutely hate the opening sequence when Castle hangs from a chandelier to shoot a room full of bad guys while spinning.
Some minor things that I really love:
- When Soap is giving the tour of his Punisher Task Force lair, and explains when asked which file is the one for Castle, "all of them."
- Punisher always kills the people he interrogates after getting what he wants out of them. My favorite of these is when he shoots one of Jigsaw's henchmen at point blank range and the FBI guy's reaction is just "god dammit, Frank!"
- Jigsaw straight up watches his brother eat a guy.
- The parkour scene. If you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I'm referring to.
Punisher: War Zone is not a perfect movie, and it may not even be the perfect Punisher movie, but it's doubtless the best one so far. It's visually stunning, gritty, violent, dark, and loyal to the comics, all while shot with an otherworldly style that helps disassociate the audience from the film's gore.
Another great defense of this film is on Patton Oswalt's web site, and you can listen to a fascinating interview with the director on How Did This Get Made?. I think the film is starting to develop something of a cult following, and frankly I think it deserves it. Whereas comic-book movies like The Dark Knight try to minimize the influence of comic books to tell an interesting drama, Punisher: War Zone embraces it's comic book roots to make a fun action movie that is incredibly easy to watch.
If you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out with an open mind. If you're a fan of The Punisher, this movie was made just for you, enjoy it without shame.
Father's family is killed, he kills some family's father, murders everyone else as penance.