“Let me put you out of my misery.” – The Punisher
2004’s ‘The Punisher’ was one of those films that didn’t do as well as projected during its initial run in theaters, but made enough of a splash on home video to get the green light for a sequel. Actor Thomas Jane was keen on reprising his role as the vigilante Frank Castle, and word is he had even “hulked” himself up by putting on twelve pounds of solid muscle in preparation for his return. But directors as well as scripts came and went, and by the time a decent screenplay materialized, Jane had already grown tired of playing the waiting game and pulled out of the running. Eventually, the project evolved into a complete reboot of the franchise beginning with ‘Punisher: War Zone,’ and while the film is the most accurate adaptation of the Marvel Comics’ series yet, for me it still doesn’t quite hit the bull's eye.
In this retelling, former Special Forces instructor Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) has been waging a one-man war on crime for years ever since his wife and children were tragically slain by the mafia. During “The Punisher’s” latest brutal assault on a mob get-together, one of the bosses, Billy "The Beaut" Russoti (Dominic West) manages to narrowly escape Castle’s trigger-happy wrath. Castle tracks Russoti to his glass recycling plant hideout but when the dust (and expended shells) finally settles—not only is Russoti horribly disfigured, the vigilante discovers he unknowingly executed an undercover FBI agent.
Out for blood, an infuriated Special Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) partners with Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) of the NYPD’s “Punisher Task Force” to bring Castle down for killing his ex-partner. Meanwhile, due to his new puzzling appearance, Russoti changes his alias to Jigsaw and springs his psychotic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) from the nut house, unleashing a reign of terror upon the city. As the cops close in and Jigsaw gravitates towards the dead agent’s wife Angela (Julie Benz) and young daughter, Castle will have to find a way to juggle wrestling with his personal demons, stopping the madmen, and staying one step ahead of the law.
‘Punisher: War Zone’ is much more faithful to the comic mythos than the previous two attempts. For starters, Ray Stevenson is easily the closest Frank Castle we’ve seen yet. He doesn’t just look the part being big, scary, and rough around the edges—he’s also a natural in handling all of his weaponry. The actor went through some grueling training with U.S. Marines, but he picked things up quickly and it really looks like he knows exactly what he’s doing on screen. I also love how he periodically reloads during brief lulls in the chaos, as opposed to the endless supply of rounds a lot of guns seem to have in action films. For me, it was just a nice touch that helped bridge the gap somewhat between fantasy and reality.
Castle’s backstory is also taken directly from the pages of the books (as opposed to the rewrite in the Tom Jane version), and it was great to see his weapons supplier, Linus "Microchip" Lieberman (terrifically played by Wayne Knight) make an appearance as well. However, Jigsaw’s origin is a bit different, as the writers practically lifted the idea from Tim Burton’s ‘Batman.’ At least that’s what I was reminded of when I saw it anyways.
The main issue I had with the film, though, was that parts of it felt like they went against the grain of the rest of the production. The comic relief provided by Jigsaw was a little too goofy for my tastes, and there’s one particular scene with him recruiting an army of thugs in front of an American flag that had me cringing in my seat—and that isn’t a compliment. It’s one one thing to inject a little dark humor here and there, but it can be done without turning the ordeal into a downright silly farce. Likewise, the dialogue isn’t the greatest as expected, although there are some clever lines but the timing and delivery seemed off. The exchanges between Budiansky and Castle felt forced, as did most of Castle’s one-liners peppered throughout the film. It was almost as if the director, Lexi Alexander, was so focused on the style and action sequences that she overlooked some of the other important details. It’s her job to have a keen eye, so she really should have been more observant and reshot any awkward scenes. If she did, then I’d hate to see what was cut.
In any case, ‘Punisher: War Zone’ delivers the goods in the action department, which is what it was meant to do. Fanboys wanted to see blood, guts, and brutal kills, and it certainly goes above and beyond in that regard. Seriously, if you have a problem with excessive violence, then this isn’t the film for you. Personally, I like hardcore action, it’s just too bad that some of the other things were mishandled and rushed out the door.
Lionsgate locks and loads ‘Punisher: War Zone’ onto a BD-50 utilizing a very impressive 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode retaining its original theatrical 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
What we have isn’t a very colorful picture by any means, but as noted in the commentary as well as one of the featurettes, the goal was to use a palette that essentially mirrored the comics. To do this, the filmmakers made an effort to use only three colors on screen at any given time, and the end result is a dark and moody picture that reminded me of ’The Crow.’ Black levels are among the strongest I’ve seen yet, staying rock solid from start to finish. There’s what appears to be a bit of natural grain, but digital noise (that can often be a distraction in films set predominantly at night) is nonexistent.
There are a few minor nitpicks keeping me from giving the transfer a perfect score, though. For one, I did catch the odd white speckle here and there—particularly during the funeral scene to give an example—and I noticed a slight softness to the picture in places. Skin tones occasionally seem a bit golden at times, but I believe that’s a product of the lighting used in some scenes.
The U.S. version of the Blu-ray is also region-locked, so it will only play on Region A compatible PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
The Blu-ray for 'Punisher: War Zone' packs a powerful and aggressive lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that takes a page from Frank Castle and pretty much blows the competition to kingdom come.
Even though Frank himself doesn't actually say a word until over twenty minutes into the movie, the dialogue is still perfectly balanced with the rest of the picture. Likewise, the surrounds are highly active with bullets whizzing by from all angles, and I loved the chilling atmosphere they provided in the asylum. The background chatter at the police station even sounded great. Completing the explosive package is rip-roaring bass that works overtime between the hard-driving music and cascade of explosions. It’s a loud and chaotic track to be sure, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Also available is a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, as well as optional English SDH, English, and Spanish subtitles.
Most of the bonus features included on the ‘Punisher: War Zone’ Blu-ray are the same ones found on the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD.
’Punisher: War Zone’ is one of those films that most fans will love and many critics will loathe with a passion. Fitting into both categories, I’m finding myself sitting on the fence. On one hand, it’s much closer to the ballpark of what The Punisher should be. On the other hand, there are still a few major missteps that can really rub viewers the wrong way. The Blu-ray does have amazing video and sound, though, and the bonuses aren’t too shabby, either. If you’re in the mood for mindless action ramped up to the extreme, Alexander’s take should easily satisfy your hunger. Just remember mindless is the operative word.