Punisher: War Zone (2008)R

CapeHalf a cape

They didn’t get Thomas Jane to come back. And though it’s nominally a sequel to that version, it has hardly any more connection to it than it does to the Dolph Lundgren version.

Modern action movies have come a long way in some ways. If this were an eighties movie, it would be a classic of the era for its combination of gruesome realism and insane over-the-topitude. At least in the opening act. But then it turns completely comic-book. By the time they finish the reveals of the twin baddies, “Jigsaw” and “Loony Bin Jim”, it’s gone from gripping to head-shaking. They’re just too cheesy. And also not very menacing when, with half an hour still to go, there’s no one left in their gang but the two of them, and they’re broke too. (This problem magically goes away for the final act.)

The attempts to sprinkle heart-wrenching pathos on the Punisher character just fall completely flat. He’s just not written as a human being, and Ray Stephenson’s performance doesn’t help. In this he’s right in line with the traditions of the eighties at their worst. The one thing that’s thoroughly modern is that the gore and bullet-wound effects are as horrific and convincing as any I’ve ever seen, and they pile them on in vast quantities. (Unlike the Jane version, they don’t shy away from digital magic to make this happen.) I’m surprised there wasn’t controversy about this getting by with an R rating... to me, this has more horror than most horror movies. And though this may be in some ways a fun romp for hardcore action fans... on some level the whole thing, even aside from the gore, leaves me with an aftertaste of disgust.

Aside from how well it panders to hardcore action fans, this movie is mostly a dull mediocrity. What entertainment and memorability it does offer is almost entirely due to the personalities of Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim (performed by Dominic West and Doug Hutchison respectively). Cheesy as they are, they’re the best part of this movie.

In the end, the only thing really noteworthy about this film is that they gave such a blood-soaked tale to a woman director, Lexi Alexander. She was once a karate champ in her youth; I suppose that helped. She also did stuntwoman work while studying acting and directing. After this Punisher movie flopped at the box office, she has mainly worked as a director in TV, notably on comic book shows such as Arrow and Supergirl. Her next return to the big screen will apparently be a biopic of wrestler/murderer Chris Benoit. Might be worth a look.