The UnPopular Opinion: Punisher: War Zone
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
The Punisher is a very difficult character to translate to feature films. Comic book fans would disagree and cite that Frank Castle should be one of the easiest. But, in a world where PG-13 is king, it is difficult to make a sanitized version of the vigilante decked out with guns and explosives. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Thomas Jane version of the character, 2008's sequel/reboot PUNISHER: WAR ZONE may be the closest we will ever get to a true adaptation of the comic book. Yes, Jon Bernthal is phenomenal in the officially sanctioned Marvel Cinematic Universe version on Netflix's Daredevil series, but Lexi Alexander's film is a truly inspired throwback that was released a decade too early to be truly appreciated by our throwback-centric current mood.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE should have worked wonderfully had it been released alongside DEADPOOL. The over the top violence was designed as a direct homage to the ultra-violent action films of the 1980s and it delivers on all fronts. To realize that this movie was helmed by a woman should have been even more reason for it to have done well and finally quashed any haters who say female filmmakers cannot direct action as well as men. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is bloody, ridiculous and completely wonderful to watch. This is a movie for bad movie afficionados and makes you wonder just what could have been if Lionsgate had not exerted so much control. Lexi Alexander has vocally said that Marvel Studios provided great input on the film, but Lionsgate was the tiebreaker and their influence led to the finished product. There is a great film in here, one that could have paved the way for the Marvel Knights branch of Marvel Studios to bring us darker and more mature fare than is possible in Disney's main venture.
There are three key elements that make PUNISHER: WAR ZONE a success but one of them stands above the rest: Ray Stevenson. The Irish actor had only one studio film under his belt when he won the role of Frank Castle and he knew this film was a big opportunity to make his mark in North America. With that in mind, Stevenson delivers a take on The Punisher straight out of an old school Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone movie. With limited dialogue and unlimited bullets, Stevenson's Frank Castle is a one-liner spewing killing machine. That, coupled with the over-the-top gore on display, makes for the adult equivalent of Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN films. Where those movies were the embodiment of a live action comic book, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is the perfect embodiment of a live action Marvel Knights comic book. Dark reds and blacks pervade the color palette, giving this movie a palpable sense of death.
The second biggest element that makes PUNISHER: WAR ZONE work is Dominic West as Jigsaw. Where John Travolta was laughably bad as an antagonist in the previous film, West chews the scenery at a level that rivals Jack Nicholson in BATMAN and Al Pacino in DICK TRACY. Jigsaw is at once a demented villain and a cliche gangster, but the combination works within the confines of this cinematic universe. Travolta's take on Howard Saint was completely serious which made his traits and mannerisms laughably bad. Here, West takes Jigsaw over the top, like any great Marvel villain should be, and delivers a portrayal that is unhinged and yet frighteningly dark. If anything West may have played it too dark which is why his character feels like he would have been more at home in a DC Comics movie.
Overall, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE feels like a DC take on a Marvel property, which is not a bad thing. While people are lamenting the current slate of films coming out of Warner Bros DCEU, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE fits right into that same mold with the characters feeling like they could have existed within SUICIDE SQUAD and no one would have batted an eye. Lexi Alexander had only helmed the soccer hooligan film GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS prior to PUNISHER: WAR ZONE and she imbues this movie with the panache of established directors like John McTiernan or Renny Harlin. Despite the production and release woes that this film endured, Alexander is the third component that makes this movie work.
Lexi Alexander has maintained that the tone and style of PUNISHER: WAR ZONE was always intended to be like the testosterone-fuled flicks of the 1980s. With that in mind, the film manages to out 80s the original THE PUNISHER which actually was released in the 1980s. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is heavy metal fueled violence. This movie is the equivalent of drinking energy drinks all day and then listening to Iron Maiden at maximum volume. It isn't good for you and doesn't really serve any purpose, but man is it a rush. Alexander was so taken aback at the studio shenanigans that circled this project that she has yet to film another Hollywood feature, but her work on series like Supergirl and Arrow have kept the comic book bug alive. I for one would love to see her get the chance to tackle another adaptation by Marvel or DC.
There is no mistaking PUNISHER: WAR ZONE for any awards contenders out there but that doesn't take away from how much fun it can be. This movie ranks alongside the BLADE franchise and even DEADPOOL as some of the more vicious and bloody superhero films ever made but it also represents Marvel Studios most debauched film in their extended canon. I will continue to support Jon Bernthal as the ideal Punisher for the MCU but he does not hold a candle to the action-oriented Frank Castle on display in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. This is the movie that embodies Garth Ennis' 2004 run on the comic and that is definitely a good thing. I can absolutely understand those who disliked this movie, but it is worth revisiting years later and enjoying it for what it is instead of what you think it should have been.
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