Movie Review – The Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone movie poster.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Frank Castle. As someone who got into the pulps, especially characters like The Shadow, before he really got into comics, I never really had a problem with a comic book character who killed criminals. Thus, the Punisher appealed to me a little, as the character had a lot in common with characters like The Shadow, in terms of being a grim or mostly silent vigilante who gunned down gangsters. While I recognized that he had to coexist with various Marvel Super Heroes, I’d kind of figured out the sort of “rule of tiers” that the Marvel U operated on, and I figured that Spidey was generally more occupied with the more dangerous super-villains that Frank couldn’t go up against.

The hate part of the relationship comes from the writer whose currently in charge of writing the Punisher in the Marvel Max books-which is when they’re keeping the character at his street-level feel (sort of). I’m referring to Garth Ennis. Garth Ennis writing style feels like he goes for the shock value too often, and he goes for the low brow too often. His writing style also gives me the impression that he hates super heroes. No work shows this better than his run on The Punisher before he went to the Marvel Max version. After the first arc of the Punisher (Welcome Back Frank, which I almost liked), he proceeded to take a dump on every Marvel character he could get away with. He had Frank use Spider-Man as a human shield for The Resurrected Russian when Spidey could have pretty easily taken him. Frank blew Wolverine’s face off and ran him over with a bulldozer.

He continued humiliating Daredevil, Wolverine, and Spider-Man in fashions that I would normally connect with a 13-year old kid who doesn’t like the Punisher because the roots of the character go back to Secret Agent G-7 and The Shadow, but because he kills people in a really gruesome fashion, thinks Rob Leifeld and Todd MacFarlane are the best artists ever, Spawn is the best superhero ever, and that The Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe is the best thing Marvel had ever done. Finally, the last straw that convinced me that Ennis is a pathetic hack was when he had the Punisher come across Bruce Banner, drugged and being auctioned off by various organized crime groups as the ultimate weapon, and had him unleash the Hulk on the Marvel Knights, who were trying to bring him in again. I set the comic down in disgust and never looked back.

I bring all that up when I talk about The Punisher: War Zone, because The Punisher: War Zone wants to be a Garth Ennis comic. Seriously – that’s the mark the director was going for. The problems with the film can be summed up by the Director’s explanation for why she had the Punisher pick off a Parkour practicing courier for the bad guy, Jigsaw, in mid air with a grenade launcher, causing him to explode into bloody chunks – “I was sick of all the parkour crap and I know my audience was too”. It’s the same thing that pisses me off with the commentary in Terminator 3, with the director and actors talking about the fights between the Terminators, dismissing martial arts as “Hong Kong Phooey”. It’s dumb, it’s crass, it’s dismissive, and considering that most of the world’s biggest practitioners of Parkour are ethnic minorities in their countries, it’s arguably a little racist. Besides, there’s no parkour glut anyway in films – I can name 4 films in the past 10 years that featured parkour notably – District B-13 and its sequel, Live Free or Die Hard, and Casino Royale. That’s it.

The movie isn’t all bad. Ray Stevenson is the best actor who has ever played The Punisher, ever. He brings the role the pathos it deserves (and the script is willing to spend the time on that pathos, as is the director). Wayne Knight does an excellent job as Microchip. Considering that in most of the other roles I’ve seen with Knight his role has generally been “the fat annoying guy”, this is an excellent change, and I hope to see him in more roles like this in the future. In fact, every member of The Punisher’s support network is excellent. The fight scenes in the film are fun and over the top, and while they have the insanely over-the-top gore that Ennis’s run is known for, they don’t linger on it to the same degree that the comics end up doing (just by the nature of the comic medium). The fight scenes are also more dynamic then the fight scenes in the earlier Thomas Jane film were. However, the film just wasn’t able to keep from pissing me off.

If you are one of the people who actually liked Garth Ennis run on the Punisher, give this movie a rental. If you’re looking for an gory action movie in the variety of the 80s and early 90s, give it a rental. But, for God’s sake, don’t buy it before you rent it.