Synopsis: Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson, Rome) is back with all guns blazing as The Punisher, this time waging a one-man war on two fronts. While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti, Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of an undercover FBI agent. Now The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army in this adrenaline-packed action-thriller.
I grew up liking The Punisher as a character. While the comics were hit and miss, I enjoyed his “no holds barred” attitude in combatting evil. I was a teenager then and it tapped into my adolescent anger and feeling of impotence in a huge world; sometimes you just want to beat the crap out of anything that’s in your way. It was basically an extension –albeit a more extreme one- of Dirty Harry, another anti-hero that I became a fan of.
Ironically, even though The Punisher doesn’t have any superpowers, bringing him to the big screen has taken quite a long time. They made a laughable attempt in the late ‘80s with Dolph Lundgren in the lead, but the script was so poor and the production so risible that there was nothing to be done with it. Technically, Lundgren could have been a good Punisher, but he would have needed a lot of support, being a limited actor.
It took about 15 years for another incarnation to make it to the big screen, but it was a little too feel-good for my tastes; I expected grittier. It didn’t help that Thomas Jane was miscast as The Punisher, but John Travolta stunk up the screen in ways only he and Nicolas Cage have the recipe for (don’t get me wrong… when they’re good they’re FANtastic. But more often than not, watching them is as pleasant as being on the receiving end of a root canal). So that made it very difficult to enjoy.
Still, we got a reboot 4 years later with a completely different cast and crew. I was sceptical just by the fact that they scrapped everything and started from scratch – that’s usually not a good sign. Still, it worked for The Hulk (‘The Incredible Hulk’ was vastly superior to ‘Hulk’ and was actually rather good) so who knew, right? I had this nagging feeling though: the new guy who plays the Punisher left me so cold as to not care. I didn’t even want to see the film.
And yet I did (let’s just say that I got a good deal on the movie)
The big surprise: the new guy, Ray Stevenson, plays the part perfectly. Not only that, but he looks it, too. Sure, his outfit has been modified from the comics to give it a more real-life functionality, but, otherwise, he’s the frickin’ Punisher! So far, and by far, he’s the best we’ve gotten. It’s strange because you’d think it would be easy shoes to fill (the guy is not especially emotional, not especially talkative, tends to fight a lot, …etc), but for some reason they haven’t been able to pull it off til now. I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s on my radar.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is so shoddy that the film suffers for it. I wonder if ANY of them are professionals (actually, I recognized one – but he was ill-cast). And then there’s the production itself. The film is low-budget, in a direct-to-video sort of way; it was dark, claustrophobic and everything looked subpar. It reminded me of ‘The Crow’ in that respect, except without the style and engaging story and performances – which, let’s face it, makes or breaks almost any movie, let alone a b-movie actioner.
But if you want action, you’re well-served. This movie is over-stuffed with massacres, massive gun fights and plain old nastiness – enough to satiate fans of the genre and plenty to make the faint-of-heart take leave of their senses. But it is called ‘Punisher: War Zone’, and I think that anyone who watches a film with a name like this would have to expect a fair bit of on-screen brutality. Thankfully, it’s all done realistically enough and Stevenson gets through it exceptionally well. There is no sense that the guy is a martial artist or is even remotely muscular, as he’s always under wraps, but that’s the magic of cinema (especially in this day and age): you can make action look good with almost any cast.
Anyway, beyond the action sequences, the story is nothing worth mentioning. It’s decent enough for its genre, and moves The Punisher along from one brawl to the next admirably well. And in the end you do feel like you were told a story, despite its sparseness and the abundance of visceral fight scenes. I’d say it’s the best of the Punisher movies, but solely on the strength of the Rob Stevenson’s incarnation of the character. With him still aboard but with a half-decent cast and a less b-movie feel to the production, they could actually make a really good one.