The news that The Punisher will be appearing in the second season of Netflix’ Daredevil is fantastic. It’ll be great to see Frank Castle step into the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, despite the fact that he has had three – three! – forays into the film world. Few characters get so many cracks at getting it right on the big screen, especially when you consider the fact that all the Punisher movies are not all that bad. We’ve talked about the merits of Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher before, but thus far, the best Frank Castle movie is 2008’s Punisher: War Zone.
Now, there are plenty of things to love about the other Punisher movies; both are solid action flicks in their own right, but neither of them capture the spirit of the character. Lundgren’s Frank is bizarrely philosophical and too much of a martial artist. Thomas Jane’s portrayal in the 2004 film is overly emotional and not tactical enough. If there’s one thing that Punisher: War Zone does very, very right, it’s the casting. Ray Stevenson looks like he crawled out of the comic book pages. He seems to be the right age for Frank Castle and has the a stature that looks like he was drawn by Steve Dillion, Goran Parlov or John Romita Jr. There’s a weight to him, a gruffness that the other actors never brought to the role. He’s darker, calculating, brutal, and efficient. It’s truly hard to think of better casting for this character.
The rest of the cast is right on the money, as well. Wayne Knight as Micro! I mean, come on, that is perfection. Julie Benz and Colin Salmon do fantastic work in every scene they are in. Oh, and Dominic West as Jigsaw is brilliant. You could make a case that West plays Jigsaw too extreme and too over-the-top, but that is exactly what the character – and the film – needed. His strange antics propped up against Stevenson’s dower Castle is pitch perfect. Really, the only character in this movie that doesn’t work is Jigsaw’s brother, Loony Bin Jim. Doug Hutchison plays him as a Looney Tunes character, an energy that is already present in West’s Jigsaw. Jigsaw and Jim are the same side of the same coin, which doesn’t bring anything interesting to the movie.
The real star of Punisher: War Zone is director Lexi Alexander. She gives the movie a feel, look, and tone that make the movie special, even in the crowded realm of action flicks. Punisher: War Zone seems to take place in a hyper-reality, a strange version of our world where it is almost always night and a man can punch his fist through another man’s face. Alexander doesn’t grounded the movie in gritty realism, she elevates to a comic book experience brought to life. Punisher: War Zone really feels like you watching comic book, like you are experiencing the Punisher as he was meant to be experienced.
The action is filmed to perfection, too. Punisher: War Zone is unrelenting, constantly exploding in your face, showering you with blood and bone. Heads exploded, bullets tear people to pieces, faces are crushed. It’s almost surreal, like an action movie cranked to eleven. It’s that surreal energy that propels the movie and keeps you glued to your seat. Even if you aren’t a fan of the character, Punisher: War Zone is a action movie like no other and one that is worth watching, without a doubt.
There are several amazing set pieces in Punisher: War Zone, from the movie’s insanely bloody opening, to Frank’s dispatching of goons in the kitchen of the family he’s watching after. The best sequence however, the part that is just pure action bliss, is the Punisher’s final tactical crawl through a building full of armed bad guys. This scene show’s Castle’s emotionless brutality, his calm demeanor as he coolly guns down every villain in his path. It was watching this scene, followed by the film’s final moment in front of a church that made me nod my head and say, “yeah, this is The Punisher I know and love.”
Punisher: War Zone is homage, not only to the comic books that spawned it, but to action movies in general. It’s like fever dream, the bullet-infused vision of those of us who grew up watching one too many action movies in the ’80s and ’90s. There are those who think it’s too violent, too over-the-top, even too goofy, but few can deny that it is well made. The great film critic Roger Ebert said in his review, “It looks great, it hurtles through its paces and is well-acted. The soundtrack is like elevator music if the elevator were in a death plunge. The special effects are state of the art. Its only flaw is that it’s disgusting.” He wasn’t a fan, but as a longtime lover of the character, I think Punisher: War Zone is damn near perfection.