In this current age of rebooting one comic franchise or horror franchise after another, it is still something of a milestone that we have a single property that has been rebooted twice in just four years by the same studio. Add that to the very first Punisher film, released straight to video back in 1989; you have a clear case of ‘three strikes, you’re out’.
Again financed by Lionsgate, “Punisher: War Zone” recasts the Punisher mythos as a kind of horror comedy. Directed by Levi Alexander and starring Ray Stevenson as Castle, this one fashions itself as an adaptation of the ‘hardcore’ Marvel Knights Punisher series (the logo at the beginning of the film is ‘Marvel Knights’ rather than ‘Marvel Comics’). As such, this one is by far the most gore filled and blood drenched entry in the franchise. So if you want a Punisher picture where Castle and various criminals basically just walk around killing people in grotesque ways (my favorite is Castle punching through a man’s head with his bare fist), then this may be your version. But in some ways, it’s the worst picture of the three.
First of all, in a manner similar to the second Punisher film from 2004, there is actually very little action. After a wave of carnage that lasts an entire reel, the film settles down and doesn’t really pick up again until the climax. Sure there are quick bursts of violence throughout the picture, but no real action between the first reel and the last. The second Punisher film had better actors and more complicated characters to compensate. This one does not (Ray Stevenson, from “Rome”, does what he can, but the plot cripples his ability to be sympathetic).
Once again, this is not an origin story, but rather a theoretical final Punisher adventure (no, he doesn’t die). Set five years after the murder of his family (told in brief flashbacks, and identical to the original comics origin), this brute, monstrous Frank Castle (he doesn’t speak a line of dialogue for the first 25 minutes) has wiped out a good portion of the organized crime in New York City. However, an attempt to collar the second-in command of a crime family goes terribly awry when Jack Napier falls into a vat of acid and becomes The Joker… no wait… I meant Billy Rossoti falls into a… uh… a machine that munches glass bottles or something and becomes the crazed Jigsaw (no, he does not want to play a game).
Seriously though, the similarities between this new Punisher film and Tim Burton’s “Batman” are striking. There’s a good fifteen minutes or so of Billy Rossoti/Jigsaw scenes that are seemingly photocopied from the opening Jack Napier/Joker scenes in that 1989 ground breaker. Alas, Dominic West is no Jack Nicholson. He does kill several people and spends most of the movie terrorizing a widow and her young daughter, but his shtick gets tired pretty quickly, especially with the ample amount of screen time he takes up (another similarity to Batman, where the main villain threatened to dominate the picture). Frankly, his brother ‘Loony Bin Jim’ registers as a more compelling villain, even if the over-the-top theatrics negate Doug Hutchison’s best quality – his ability to play low-key savagery.
Oh, and during that glass bottle munching factory scene, Frank Castle inexplicably kills a federal agent by accident, which sets a chain of events in motion that puts everyone around him in mortal peril (including the MIA Wayne Knight, as Castle’s only friend). More so than any of the other movies, The Punisher is directly responsible for the mayhem and chaos that goes down. As the plot unfolds, we quickly realize that if Castle had simply stayed out of the way, pretty much every bad guy that is targeted by Castle would have been arrested on capital charges in a matter of days anyway.
But this is not a film that overtly questions the nature of Castle’s murderous quest, and in the end he learns that it’s OK to kill cops because it’s a war and sometimes there’s collateral damage. Even the murdered cop’s ex-partner eventually comes around to Castle’s way of thinking, as do the widow and daughter of Castle’s whoopsie. The film even creepily allows the daughter to form an emotional attachment to the man who killed her father and caused her and her mother to be in constant jeopardy for literally the entire film.
The problem with this whole thread is that it removes the fantasy element from the character. Although this is easily the most fantastical and cartoonish of the three Punisher films, it tries to inject real-life consequences to Castle’s murderous vigilantism and still expect us to root for him. Sorry, but the fantasy of Castle is that he only kills the bad guys and never targets the innocent. Once you remove that criteria, then it is impossible to justify the concept of The Punisher, even in a fantasy scenario.
So we know have three distinctly different Punisher films. We have a low-budget B-movie, a moderately budgeted action picture that emphasizes character over carnage, and then finally this moderately budgeted and exceptionally violent cartoon. One could argue that cartoonish is the way to go for this patently ridiculous character, but the infusion of real-world consequences neutralizes the fun.
Although it’s possible to enjoy the first act and third act carnage without paying attention to the plot mechanics, the storyline itself continuously reminds us of the fallacy of Castle’s quest. After all, what’s the point of enjoying the fantasy of a murderous vigilante who punishes the guilty when the whole film keeps reminding us of the terrible consequences of his vengeful actions?