Punisher: War Zone is still the best Punisher adaptation

Lionsgate

Of all the iterations of the Punisher that have come and gone, be they film or TV, live-action or animated, Punisher: War Zone stands out. It’s a superhero film that’s ahead of its time — the kind of film that feels like a reaction to the past decade of Marvel and DC films, rather than a precursor. It’s also more fun — a feat in and of itself.

In broad strokes, the Punisher’s origin story is a familiar one: After his family is murdered by mobsters, Frank Castle embarks on a quest for vengeance. His firearm-heavy particulars (as well as all the extralegal murder and torture) make the character inherently difficult to tackle, more so as the national conversation around gun control grows more relevant.

The two Punisher films leading up to War Zone — released in 1989 and 2004, starring Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, respectively — speak a little to the reason that Frank Castle continues to have cultural capital. Both are perfect distillations of action movie tropes of their respective decades, and reflections of how violence has been portrayed in the media. Jon Bernthal’s spin on things in Netflix’s recent Marvel series fits into much the same kind of category, subscribing to the hyper-seriousness that tends to denote “prestige” TV. The result is a show that’s grim in a way that, while not necessarily antithetical to the Punisher’s ethos, feels half-baked and ill-suited as a series about an unstoppable vigilante with a seemingly unending supply of guns in the current climate.

War Zone, dropped in an odd December 2008 release window, comes off as a fish out of water in that regard. The movie revels in cartoon bloodshed, placing it apart from contemporaries such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which preceded War Zone by only a few months, as well as the more realist bent of the recent Netflix Punisher series.

Directed by Lexi Alexander, who lifts some of the film’s sequences directly from the comic books, War Zone buzzes with neon lights and outlandish action sequences (and the accordingly splatter-y kills). Super powers may be nonexistent in the world of the Punisher, but the way the film is shot — and how exaggerated the characters become — comes close to rendering that power cap irrelevant.

The first big action set-piece — in which Castle (Ray Stevenson) crashes a mob boss’ dinner party with all the melodramatics of Batman, immediately decapitates a man, then hangs upside down from a chandelier while firing guns with both hands — makes clear that War Zone is an out-and-out comic book movie while wielding a bombastic sense of violence. It’s closer to Tim Burton’s Batman films than the other comic book movies of the time, which were striving for a measure of verisimilitude.

It’s big, it’s bold, it’s colorful and it’s ecstatic when fully unleashed. Alexander’s exaggerated approach is the opposite of the kind of fetishistic embrace that’s made Castle an uneasy staple (his signature skull cropped up all over during the Iraq War). Though the Punisher is the character the audience is meant to be rooting for, his status as a “hero” is only distinguished by the fact that his enemies are worse.

Dominic West and Doug Hutchison, as the villainous brothers Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, are even more outrageous. West (best known for his work on The Wire and The Affair) is terrific as a narcissistic gangster whose face ends up torn to shreds — hence the moniker — that heralds character actor roles he’s taken in works like Colette, The Square and The Hour. He’s delivering a huge, swing-for-the-fences kind of performance (with a nothing if not stereotypical Italian accent to boot) that makes him interesting rather than completely expendable (and uninteresting) in the way that the majority of, say, the recent Marvel film slate’s baddie stable has been.

Jigsaw’s cartoonishness is emblematic of how War Zone manages to avoid glorifying the violence that’s so rampant in it. Castle’s antics are so far out of the realm of possibility (and delivered with bon mots like “let me put you out of my misery”) that it neatly divorces itself from anything emulable. But more than that, Jigsaw’s overarching plan to kill the Punisher also exposes some of the franchise’s inherent flaws.

In one of the film’s best sequences, Jigsaw goes about shoring up security by recruiting men from the gangs that Castle has been terrorizing since turning vigilante. As Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim march about town as if in a ceremony drill to make their case, they’re set against a backdrop of an American flag and scored to “America the Beautiful.”

Parodying military recruitment ads, Jigsaw’s spiel insists that the gathered men “be all [they] can be.” The speech is also a swipe at who exactly the Punisher is hurting or helping as he supposedly cleans up the streets (the gangs that the brothers appeal to consist of African Americans, Asian Americans and Irish Americans). As Jigsaw notes, because of the gangsters’ outsider status, the body count the Punisher is racking up has failed to draw the concern of the police. The dichotomy between that kind of cogency and the absurdity of the rest of the film is what makes War Zone a compelling watch a decade later.

Of course, Stevenson makes a terrific Punisher. As seen in his other Marvel role as Thor’s buddy Volstagg, the actor is fully capable of carrying off comedy. While being the Punisher doesn’t offer the same free rein to flex those particular muscles, Stevenson knows just how far to push the character’s dourness to make it as ridiculous as the rest of the film rather than being simply oppressive.

(It helps that the Punisher’s sidekick, Micro, is played by Wayne Knight, better known as Newman on Seinfeld and Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park. Though he turns in a remarkably tender performance, the associations he brings to mind automatically alter the figurative temperature.)

That balance between seriousness and playfulness — which characterizes the entire film, as it’s clearly devoted to its source material but still willing to have fun with it — is something Stevenson nails, defying Lundgren’s, Jane’s and Bernthal’s diminishing returns (as well as the present Marvel and DC industrial complexes). The closest thing that Stevenson’s Punisher has to a contemporary corollary isn’t an MCU crusader or one of DC’s grimdark heroes — it’s John Wick. The gun-fu franchise’s neon lights, hyper-violence and deliberately exaggerated world-building are all in alignment. The big difference, it seems, is that John Wick had its timing right — War Zone bombed at the box office — or, at the least, was an original creation, rather than drawing from a property that audiences already had expectations for.

As the character grows out of his roots as a Spider-Man villain, it’s more and more necessary to assess and address the nature of his appeal. The casual violence built into the Punisher’s DNA worked for a villain, but doesn’t quite jibe with a character who is increasingly presented as a sympathetic antihero. There needs to be some reckoning with the violence and relative impunity he’s known for, and War Zone manages that — while remaining squarely in the comic book movie genre — making it the only live-action version of the character that has stood the test of time with any measure of grace.

As comic book movies lean into self-awareness and embrace the R rating, and as we’re coming off a decade of Marvel’s and DC’s empire-building, it feels as though the landscape has become prime War Zone territory. With Deadpool a household name and relative outliers like the Guardians of the Galaxy making billions worldwide, would War Zone be the same under the new comic book context? It’s hard to imagine Alexander’s vision for the Punisher not clicking in 2018, but it’s also hard to blame Lionsgate for being so flummoxed by the movie that it dumped it during the holiday season.

Maybe a world exists in which War Zone might not have been ahead of its time, but as it is, it remains a singular superhero movie at a moment of complete saturation.

Movies, reconsidered

Deep dives 10
The modern lens 9
Hot takes 13

Comments

I too enjoy shitty movies from time to time.

Boom.

(Lexi Alexander makes Uwe Boll look like Francis Ford Coppola by comparison.)

Nah, Uwe Boll is maliciously shitty. As much as I can’t stand War Zone, I would say that it at least felt like they were trying to make a good movie.

The problem is they started with a bad premise as the foundation, and kept doubling down.

No he’s not, i’ll defend most of Boll’s films on fucking deathbed, there’s one other German director who is far more incompetent then Boll who deserves way more hate-Uli Lommel, granted he’s dead now, but in the last decade or so he made nothing but terrible serial killer films that were dreadfully boring, a criticism that could certainly not be leveled at Boll.

nah she’s awesome

It’s a B-movie splatterfest, lol. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but if you were someone who read this without seeing the film you’d be in for a massive disappointment when it doesn’t actually deliver anything but cheesy comedic violence.

Meh. Thomas Jane’s version was better. That was an all-out 80’s schlock fest and I love every excruciating minute of it.

Meh. Thomas Jane’s version was better. That was an all-out 80’s schlock fest and I love every excruciating minute of it.

That’s the one where The Punisher kills the bad guy, by suffocating him with a fat man right? I’ve never seen it, but it always sounded really cool and I’m always bummed no one mentions it.

Don’t recall that scene. Might be the Dolph Lundgren version.

TJ’s movie ends with him tying the big bad to the bumper of his car and having him dragged (via remote control) through his own used car lot as every car around him blows up as he gets caught on fire. Punisher then blows the car dragging him up and you go to an aerial shot of the lot and the burning cars make the Punisher skull. All the while this is going on Drowning Pool’s "Step Up" is banging on.

If you haven’t already, check out the "Bootleg Universe" short with Thomas Jane reprising the role. It’s on Youtube and it’s called Dirty Laundry.

This movie wasn’t even close to good. All the "best" parts are when it’s so stupid that it’s worth a chuckle.

The Thomas Jane and Netflix adaptations are far and away much better versions of the character and story.

I hope one day to enjoy this on a Galaxy-brain level, but I can’t really enjoy it beyond "this is so silly and bad." I don’t find the direction all that compelling, the story’s, I would say, very bad, and Stevenson deserves better because he’s the best part of the film. I think there’s absolutely a place for an over-the-too adaptation, but I just never found this one as good as others. It’s "it’s all out of the comics!" approach didn’t serve it well either. I dunno. I enjoyed the article, though.

Nah. I’m seeing a lot of revisionist history about this movie today and…no thanks. Dominic West is abysmal and sucked out any enjoyment I got when I watched this.

The Thomas Jane film was far better imo. His Punisher was a total badass but a decent guy as well.

Stevenson was a great Castle, he had the look and the acting talent to pull it off (that goddamn collar on his flack jacket had to go though, it annoys me so bad). But the villains were terrible and the comedy elements were painfully mistimed and made the tone of the whole film weird but not in a good way.

Still worth watching it for the splat-tastic opening (but again could have done without the hanging from a chandelier shoot out, that was embarrassing) and the Game of Death stlye floor by floor finale shootout.

Didn’t seem embarrassing to me.

He’ll always be Polo to me. 13!

Man I was surprised to find so much negativity in the comments lol. I love this movie! Its so much fun to watch. Lexi Alexander rules

I also have 0 respect for the Punisher the character though, so this is how I prefer him presented: as a hilarious cartoon, rather than playing his schtick straight

I’ve got plenty of respect for him as a character.

BTW get over GOG, if you can forgive James Gunn for dumb jokes he made a decade ago, surely we can do the same for a company that’s otherwise done pretty good right?

sorry to break it to ya, but this one isn’t THE best Punisher adaptation, The Punisher wouldn’t do a lame chandelier spin just to kill a few enemies in one room, let alone hit every target while doing so, There is only ONE Punisher, there is only ONE man who was born to play Frank Castle, as the Marine he is in the Born series and MAX comic series’, Jon Bernthal. the rest of the movies sucked, but props to to the 3 actors who portrayed the character in 3 mediocre films, for giving it their all.

Did not think the film was lame at all, loved the opening scene.

Flip opinion: Daredevil season 2 should have been shortened when they determined ninja devils couldn’t fill all the episodes and not wasted our time with shitty Punisher stuff.

Yeah, didn’t care for him or the Netflix take on the character. Still haven’t bothered to watch the season for that reason either.

I agree with the defense of War Zone and do think it’s under-appreciated(Lexi Alexander deserves more love for sure) but I do not agree one bit with the bad take on the live-action series, it did not feel "half-baked" or "i’ll-suited", guns are just a part of our culture for better worse, for TV shows and films to avoid them entirely would just look incredibly naive. The live-action Punisher is my all time favorite live-action TV series and I do not see that changing, it perfectly nailed the character, anyone that claims the Punisher is "one-note" has clearly never read any of the Garth Ennis Punisher MAX series, those turned Frank from a mostly simple-minded vigilante to a three-dimensional person.

Personally I think the Lundgen and Jane films also still have their places, the former goes balls to the wall with insane set-pieces, the latter ups the ante by killing off Castle’s whole family and adding in a corrupt cops angle that most iterations of Punisher didn’t have, which was interesting, Tampa was also an interesting setting and the film was more focused on the Punisher infiltrating and sabotaging Saint’s empire rather then all-out action(though there’s enough to go around still).

Punisher was the one comic book character that I was actually driven to start reading comics about after seeing a film adaptation, which is not something I can say for any of the MCU films.

There was always an "unending supply of guns" that’s not something that magically changed, violent crime has actually gone way down over the past decades, it only seems worse then it is because of social media.

I’d argue all live-action versions "stand the test of time" just fine.

Jon Bernthal. That is all.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑