A Second Glance: ‘Punisher: War Zone’ (2008)

Ryan Covey
Movies Comics
Movies Comics Marvel

Popular culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything, and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance. In this edition, we look at the third and final film adaptation of The Punisher.  Punisher: War Zone.

Last Time on ‘A Second Glance’: The Punisher (2004)

There really is no comic-to-film adaptation with a story quite like The Punisher.  The Punisher has appeared on the silver screen three times: in 1989, in 2004, and once in 2008.  These movies all tell the same sort of story in an entirely different way.  Every one of the Punisher films is great in spite of their relative failure and critical lambasting.  Arguing over which one is the best is a fool’s errand that undercuts how unique and wonderful they all are.  The previous two films adapted the comics with their own stylistic spin.  This is the first movie to actually bring the Punisher books to life.  Punisher: War Zone is a Garth Ennis-style Punisher movie and it is a gruesomely bonkers good time.

The Plot

Frank Castle A.K.A. The Punisher has been fighting his bloody war on crime in New York City for years.  The criminals fear him and the police mostly stay out of his way.  One night Castle mistakenly kills an undercover FBI agent attached to mobster Billy “The Beaut” Russoti (Dominic West.)  Frank decides to throw himself upon the mercy of the dead agent’s wife Angela (Julie Benz).  When Angela refuses to kill Castle he decides to retire from the vigilante trade.

Billy Russotti becomes badly disfigured by his encounter with The Punisher.  Russoti turns to reconstructive surgery but still ends up looking like a patchwork monstrosity.  Angered by his shattered vanity and by finding out that one of his men was a federal agent, he sets out to get revenge and get his money back.  The mobster changes his name to Jigsaw to reflect his new look and tries to find a way to kill The Punisher.

The Characters

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Each iteration of The Punisher has been different and Punisher: War Zone is no exception.  Ray Stevenson plays an older Frank Castle, a man on the wrong side of 40.  Ray Stevenson doesn’t have the chiseled abs and heroic jawline of Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane.  Stevenson’s Punisher is a man who keeps in shape, but also lives off of junk food and MREs.  Stevenson’s Frank also has a secret heart beneath all the murderous desires.  Frank Castle is brutal and cruel but he’s also sympathetic to those in need and good with kids.

Joining The Punisher this time around is his long-time partner from the comics, Microchip (Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight).  Knight generally plays socially awkward doofuses and creeps, so Micro is a bit of a change of pace for him.  Knight brings an affable likability to a character that even many die-hard fans of The Punisher have never really cared for.

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Jigsaw is the closest thing that Frank Castle has to an arch nemesis.  The violent gangster with the patchwork face only really works in more surreal Punisher stories like this one since he’s effectively just a Dick Tracy villain with a gritty backstory.  Dominic West plays Jigsaw as a near-pastiche of Heath Ledger’s The Joker.  Jigsaw is a bombastic sneering lunatic and he’s still not the craziest character in the film.

The Green Mile’s Doug Hutchison plays Jigsaw’s brother Loony Bin Jim.  Jim isn’t from the comics, he’s a wholly original creation for the film.  Hutchison chews more scenery than possibly any actor in the history of cinema.   He applies a Daniel Day Lewis-worthy amount of effort to being as cartoonishly over-the-top as possible and it’s glorious.

Bringing Garth Ennis’ Work to Life

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The biggest complaint against the 2004 Punisher movie was that it did a poor job of bringing elements of writer Garth Ennis’ Punisher stories into the film.  The problem is that Ennis’ writing style is very divisive.  It’s deep and thoughtful while also being completely sophomoric.  Ennis is a master storyteller but his sense of humor is an acquired taste.

The Punisher is a character with problematic overtones.  Frank Castle is a murderer; sure he only murders hardened criminals but the subject matter is a slippery slope.  To tell a good Punisher story, a writer has to create a narrative that makes Frank Castle look like the good guy without coming across as an advocate of vigilantism.  To glorify Frank Castle is dangerous, but to shy away from the brutality of the character is to strip the story of its necessary darkness.  The reason Ennis’ style worked so well for the Punisher is that his absurdist sense of humor made the violence seem surreal and silly.

Director Lexi Alexander nearly dropped out of the film in the early stages.  She had seen a Punisher poster in pictures posted by the Virgina Tech shooter.  Ultimately she signed on but was unsure of how she was going to get around the troublesome subject matter.   But when she read Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX, she realized the tone she wanted to go for.  Punisher: War Zone is an extremely dark comedy, mixing Grand Guignol with slapstick and absurdist sensibilities.  This move is a double-edged sword.  The tone creates the ideal movie for lovers of Punisher MAX, but it also makes the film completely inaccessible to broader audiences.

Why Does “Punisher: War Zone” Deserve a Second Glance?

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Punisher: War Zone is an unhinged delight.  The film is violent and serious but full of manic energy and performances.  Shocking ultra-violence is more often than not used as a punchline rather than a shock.  The characters are insane, the story is insane, but there is a genuine heart and soul to the movie.  Lexi Alexander directed a subversive and twisted movie too special to ever be successful.

This is the least popular of the three Punisher movies but it has a dedicated cult following.  Thanks in part to comedian Patton Oswalt and the How Did This Get Made podcast, the movie has secret fans everywhere.  The creators of the children’s show Marvel Superhero Squad even had Ray Stevenson appear in character as this version of Frank Castle.

Punisher: War Zone is not the best or smartest adaptation of The Punisher, but it is brazen, fun, and unique.  If you have not already experienced the euphoria for yourself, you can find Punisher: War Zone on Amazon.

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