Punisher: War Zone (2008)
During the seventies, due to the soaring crime rate, failure of national politics and social backlash against the establishment, vigilante films and novels were very popular with the public. Michael Winner's Death Wish captured this sentiment perfectly. Although an exploitation film, it managed to maintain an intelligent and thoughtful edge, which certainly reflected the mood of the New York public of the times. Sadly, these issues where subsequently written out of most future screenplays due to the rise of the Hollywood action blockbuster. Moral subtexts and ethical conundrums were replaced by the sledge hammer ideology of might is right. Heroes were given badges and the official sanction of the establishment and destroyed two dimensional enemies, without any need for ethical reflection or inner introspection.
The Punisher started life in 1974, as minor character in The Amazing Spiderman comic. He was unique in the fact that he was not a traditional super hero with special powers. He was simply an ex-marine turned vigilante after his family were executed by the Mafia. Due to the mood of the times, he struck a chord with the readers and quickly became a franchise in his own right. Naturally, such a character was deemed to have box office potential and was subsequently adapted for the screen three times. Dolph Lundgren took the lead in Mark Goldblatt's competent 1989 production and Thomas Jane explored the character again in 2004 directed Jonathan Hensleigh's. However, these films strayed somewhat from the central character and tended to focus upon his emotional turmoil. Both make for interesting genre viewing but essentially miss the simplicity and enigma of the central theme.
In Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander, Ray Stevenson takes on the role of Frank Castle. Finally, the character gets the treatment they deserves, in a vehicle that truly captures the original spirit of the comics and graphic novels. Punisher: War Zone is a bleak, extremely violent action film which shows us a man who has lost his soul and functions only to punish the guilty. His work brings him no pleasure, redemption or salvation. It simply provides him with a reason to exist. The religious and philosophical aspects of this are touched on but not explored excessively. This is a film that does not delude itself or the public about what it is about. All the classic protagonists are present. There is a scarred crime boss called Jigsaw (Dominic West) who fills the role of nemesis. Then there is the collaborator and armourer Micro (Wayne Knight) who articulates the justification for our anti-hero. The voice of the establishment and public morality is represented in FBI Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon).
Despite having a very troubled production (which I won't go in to here), Punisher: War Zone is a professionally made genre picture with some strong action scenes. The cast and script are exactly right for this sort of film. Stevenson is given more to do with the role than you may expect and sells his performance perfectly. West does not attempt to go beyond what is required as Jigsaw. Unlike Heath Ledger's Joker he is not out to score psychological points but simply wants revenge. For the purist action movie fan this is as good as it gets. Shame the US critics didn't see it this way. They made the mistake of looking for more within the material, when more was not required. Perhaps political correct sensibilities demanded some sort of moral sub-text or epiphany. Sorry but you won't find them here. To have pandered to such themes would have totally mitigated the source material and have been an artistic insult.
Punisher: War Zone received a very limited release in the UK due to its poor US box office returns, back in 2008. The emotive nature of the entire subject, is something that often resonates with a good many members of the public. We live in a civilised society that has laws and courts and a process for dealing with crime. We ponder the motives of the guilty and we endeavour to treat them with more humanity than they did their victims. Yet, despite what our heads and moral compass tells us, somewhere in our hearts many off us crave for this kind of hard justice. We know that in reality it would not work, yet the concept of the righter of wrongs who deals in lead, is a potent one that does not go away easily. We live in times where our confidence in the system is sorely tested.
Punisher: War Zone is not for everyone and cannot be considered a mainstream film. It is however, honest enough to be exactly as it should. Why the executives over at Lions Gate picture decided to release this during the Christmas season of 2008 is beyond me. Again, I think this is another example of studio politics and how certain producers still lack confidence in R rated movies, preferring to explore more lucrative options. So, in one respect Punisher: War Zone is a minor milestone is so far as don’t see a picture of this kind too often. Eight years on, Deadpool is the most comparable comparison. As the rights to The Punisher have now returned to Marvel and the franchise has found a home on Netflix, it is highly unlikely we’ll see another cinematic outing again.