Punisher: War Zone

Movie Information

The Story: The Punisher goes after master criminal Jigsaw to protect the widow of an FBI agent and prevent an influx of terrorist-ready weapons from entering the hands of New York City's apparently thriving community of Islamic extremists. The Lowdown: Trashy, overstated, witlessly violent, borderline incoherent and predictable to the point of boredom.
Genre: Excessive Comic-Book Movie
Director: Lexi Alexander (Hooligans)
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchinson, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Julie Benz
Rated: R

In many ways, Punisher: War Zone is a remarkable work. (Watch that end up in breakout quote on a DVD box.) I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more pointlessly excessive movie. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never encountered a sillier screenplay with worse dialogue or a lamer plot. And I’m 100 percent certain that Punisher wins the big prize for most amazing aggregation of bad performances packed into a single film. This is the midget-clown car of bad performances: You sit in rapt wonder as more and more awkward awfulness rolls out of the damned thing. In this regard, the film is something of an accomplishment—an undesirable one, but an accomplishment all the same.

Unlike Jonathan Hensleish’s The Punisher (2004), which now comes across as a masterpiece by comparison, this one jumps in with the assumption—perhaps correctly—that everyone already knows all about this lower-echelon Marvel comic-book “hero.” That way the absurd action can kick in within the first few minutes. If nothing else, it’s economical. The film commences with our gun-toting vigilante—kind of a cross between the earliest comic-book incarnation of Batman and the Shadow with more firepower—knocking off the greater portion of a Mafia family (here referred to as the Cosa Nostra family). Is it exciting? Well, it’s extremely noisy and busy—and very convenient how none of the assembled gangsters at the dinner table are packing heat. Well, perhaps they merely felt it was less embarrassing to just sit there and take it rather than be in any more of the movie.

Wasting no time, the film then moves straight into the creation of its lackluster super criminal. In a scene ripped off from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the villainous, unscrupulous and at least mildly unhinged Billy Russoti (Dominic West, TV’s The Wire) gets knocked into a vat of glass bottles that are being recycled, emerging as more ground chuck than you’ll find on the meat counter during a $1.98-a-pound sale. Somehow or other, he’s miraculously alive (well, there wouldn’t be much of a conflict otherwise) and gets patched together by a plastic surgeon (TV actor Cas Anvar), who—to judge by the results—learned his trade by stitching baseballs. Feeling a bit testy after seeing the doc’s handiwork (a scene also appropriated from Batman), he offs the shady medico and tells his henchmen not to call him Billy anymore, “From now on my name is Jigsaw.” And yes, I know the comic-book Jigsaw predates it, but I was really hoping someone would say, “Nix, boss, that name’s already taken by the Saw franchise. How’s about Baseball Face?” No such luck.

Since Jigsaw isn’t much of a character, the movie gives him a certifiably insane brother, Loony Bin Jim (TV actor Doug Hutchison), who gets busted out of the asylum—pausing long enough for Jim to eviscerate a nasty warder and nosh on his entrails. By now you’ve probably figured out that Punisher is a very splattery essay in comic bookery. This, however, is but sticking a tentative toe in the bloodbath to come. When people are shot, their heads explode like water balloons filled with Karo syrup and food color. There’s more carnage here—shootings, stabbings, hackings, impalings, flying viscera—than in a hardcore horror movie. I don’t personally object, but it plays more like splatstick overkill than anything remotely serious.

And what of the Punisher himself? Well, he’s played by Brit TV actor Ray Stevenson (King Arthur), who seems to be in a contest with Dominic West to see which Brit can do the worst New Yawk accent. (I think West wins, but it’s close.) He’s less interesting than the bad guys in that when he isn’t shooting bad guys, he spends his time moping in his subway lair about accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent—which, I guess, makes a break from brooding over his family’s murder at the worst picnic ever (the event that turned him into the Punisher). Christian Bale’s Batman is a barrel of laughs next to this guy.

There’s a sort of a plot involving Russian gangsters trying to arm would-be terrorists with biological weapons that look like the carriers at a bank’s drive-in window, but none of this matters much. The movie exists solely as a vehicle for its carnage. There’s plenty of that, if you care for that sort of thing. And if you do, make haste, because opening-weekend box office indicates Punisher could be in the Wal-Mart $5 dump bin in time for Christmas as a worthy replacement for those hard-to-find lumps of coal. Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language and some drug use.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “Punisher: War Zone

  1. Ken Hanke

    Chances are that it’ll be too quickly forgotten and little seen even to qualify for that honor.

  2. Steven

    You’re probably right. Disaster Movie will probably take the prize.

  3. Sean Williams

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more pointlessly excessive movie.

    Well, you gave Sin City 4.5 stars, but Miller’s excess is deliberate and intelligent.

    If nothing else, it’s economical.

    No tedious origin story, right?

  4. Dionysis

    This film sounds much like the lame ‘Punisher’ movie released in 1989 with Dolph Lundgren in the title role. I kind of liked the 2004 version with Thomas Jane, but this seems to be yet another waste of time and money, which this review will save me from squandering.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Well, you gave Sin City 4.5 stars, but Miller’s excess is deliberate and intelligent.

    Hence the inclusion of “pointlessly” here.

    No tedious origin story, right?

    A brief flashback to Frank Castle demonstrating the object lesson that having the family picnic right next to a gangland killing is probably not the wisest of moves.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I kind of liked the 2004 version with Thomas Jane

    So did I. This is nothing like that. Someone — a self-proclaimed comic book fan — told me last night that the very reason he did like this film is that it’s “just random violence.” That seems a strange — even disturbing — criterion to me, but the phrase does kind of sum up the film.

  7. I watched this last night (all alone in the theater), and I must say that I liked it. The movie title is THE PUNISHER, and by golly, he punishes. Over and over in glorious red blood.

  8. Justin Souther

    he punishes

    I’ll second this. I certainly felt like I must have done something wrong this or a past life after sitting through it.

  9. Steven

    I just started watching The Wire. It’s kind of embarrassing to see Dominic West in this.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Considering how few people are seeing this, his personal embarassment should be minimized. At the same time, one should always take the lesson learned from Raul Julia appearing in Street Fighter. I’m sure it never occurred to him that this would be his last movie, but it was. Now, that is embarassing.

  11. Vince Lugo

    I just finished watching this (what can I say? I’m a Marvel fan, I can’t say no) and I can see why this film was criticized so much. Many people complain that comic book movies deviate too much from the source material, but this film has the opposite problem. With the color scheme, the way the shots are framed and the dialogue, this is quite literally the comic book on film and it doesn’t work as well as it should (not nearly as well as Watchmen did). Personally, I thought it was okay. Not great, but at the very least, I didn’t feel like I wasted my time.

  12. jasondelaney

    Stop cracking on Raul Julia, let him rest in piece for god’s sake. His Gomez earned him that much surely.

    If I had only seen that Dolph Lundgren disaster then i would have thought this an improvement. However, Thom Jane’s portrayal of a punisher who winds up making friends despite his every effort to be cold and surly made this garbage piss me off. The only character in this entire film is violence, it has all the lines and all the screentime. If thats the kind of Punisher movie they are going to make then it should be from a different story arc. Specifically Im thinking of Garth Ennis’s twisted issues. Watching Punisher with a baseball bat team up with Wolverine to slaughter hundreds of evil midgets might be funny enough to eschew any sort of personality but this isn’t.

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