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Awfully Good: Punisher: War Zone

Grab your rocket launcher and your parkour shoes! We’re revisiting the late Ray Stevenson in the best Punisher movie, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE.

Hearing about Ray Stevenson’s unfortunate passing made me want to revisit one of his best movies….

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Director: Lexi Alexander
Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz

IS THERE A PLOT?

Former family man Frank Castle spends his time violently eradicating organized crime, but after an eventful night of sending a mob boss face-first through a glass crusher and accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent, The Punisher finds himself being hunted by those on both sides of the law.

WHAT’S THE DAMAGE?

The Punisher has had an interesting foray in to live action over the years. The 1989 Dolph Lundgren movie still holds up, but he honestly could’ve been any generic vigilante. Jon Bernthal gave us a more psychologically complex Frank Castle in his Netflix series, while Thomas Jane provided what fans had long been clamoring for…The Punisher punishing Tampa, Florida. However, Punisher: War Zone with Ray Stevenson stands on their shoulders as the best of the best.

You’ll know you’re in good hands by the first scene, when the film opens with the title character single-handedly taking out an entire crime family in the most gruesome ways possible—no unnecessary setup or origin story needed. And not long after, around the time Frank Castle watches some guys doing rooftop parkour and kills one in midair with a rocket launcher, you’ll realize that you will love this movie forever.

The Punisher and a group of henchmen pointing guns at each other on opposite sides of a wall.
<em>To be fair that wall was a virulent racist and deserved every bullet<em>

The biggest compliment I can pay Punisher: War Zone is that it manages to feel like both an accurate comic book adaptation AND a loving homage to unapologetically violent action movies from the 1980s. It’s pretty much exactly what you want out of a film like this. The action is unflinching with a slightly tongue-in-cheek humor to it, enough to make the graphic murders palatable, but not constantly undercutting its effectiveness with jokes. There’s also the right amount of story and characterization to give the movie stakes and provide a glimpse of the Punisher’s humanity and personal demons, but not so much that the film drags in between all the headshots and broken bones.  

But mostly it’s just a lot of fun and a blast to watch, chock full of the utter carnage and excess a Punisher flick should have. This is a video game world of endless ammo and magically appearing guns, where ridiculous-looking vigilantes and villains can run down a busy New York City street  without anyone batting an eye, and where facial bones apparently don’t exist and a man without superpowers can punch a giant hole through your skull. It also takes place in a society where crazed serial killers can murder multiple cops, get arrested and make a plea deal with the feds, and walk free that same day. If ever there was a city that needed The Punisher, this is it.

A man with a chair leg in his eye.
<em>Eye didnt see that coming <em><br ><em> This Guy<em>

Director Lexi Alexander, who made the also-underrated Green Street Hooligans, deserves most of the credit here for absolutely nailing both tone and the visuals of the movie, each bouncing between dark and gritty or delightfully outlandish when needed. (There are some excellent shots in Punisher: War Zone, with Castle always being framed as larger-than-life or his skull logo getting illuminated in darkness.) Alexander, a former world champion kickboxer and black belt in karate, also ensures that the action is *ahem* well-executed. The fight scenes and action sequences are all expertly-shot, easy to follow, and appropriately brutal. It’s a veritable smorgasbord for connoisseurs of skull stabbings, blown out kneecaps, beheadings—both via blade and shotgun, human arson, and even a chair leg through the eye. The missile launcher kill is probably my favorite, but I have to give credit to the scene where The Punisher  throws a man off a building, impaling him on the gate below and then jumps off the roof, landing on his head and breaking his neck. It’s a level commitment and dedication most vigilantes don’t have.

Also amazing—the effects are almost all practical, with a level of violence that might remind discerning viewers of the over-the-top gore in Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. It’s honestly all just so well-done that I don’t know why Hollywood didn’t throw every action franchise at Alexander after this came out. (You know, aside from standard discrimination against female directors, especially in this genre.)

Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim standing in front of an American flag.
<em>Make America Hate Again<em>

The cast is also icing on the violence cake. The Wire’s Dominic West gets the showiest role, playing Jigsaw with a wonderfully ludicrous accent and making full use of his makeup—giving a bigger and wilder performance as the movie goes on. He gets the honor of delivering a rousing Patton-style speech in front of an American flag, attempting to build an army of henchmen for the sole purpose of giving Frank Castle an endless supply of bodies to mow through in the last act. Doug Hutchinson is also delightfully unhinged as Jigsaw’s brother Loony Bin Jim, whether that means he’s hissing like a cat or chomping on people’s internal organs.

Colin Salmon, who you may recognize from the Brosnan Bond movies, has the unenviable task of playing the serious-minded straight man to all the insanity happening around him, but he still manages to hold his own by utilizing the legendary thespian tactic of…randomly yelling his lines. His “Goddammit, Castle!” reaction to the Punisher casually blowing off a man’s head with a shotgun actually made me do a spit take.

Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) with a gun pointed to his head.
<em>Jerry Seinfeld always collects his debts<em>

And then there’s the late Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle. Stevenson was one of those actors who was so effortlessly good in everything that he rarely called attention to himself–like playing the sneering villain in RRR, the boisterous Volstagg in the MCU, or delivering one of my favorite lines in The Other Guys. After Punisher: War Zone, I think he’s still the best Frank Castle, handling both the action and the occasional dramatic moments with ease. He’s just such an imposing, powerful presence in this movie and manages to do a lot with very little, considering the title character doesn’t need to speak much. So when he does open his mouth, Stevenson makes stellar one-liners like this really shine (said right before he sets this guy on fire):

The Punisher looking at Jigsaw, saying "Let me put you out of my misery."
<em><em>Perfection<em><em> <br ><em>RIP Ray Stevenson<em>

“BEST” PARTS

ENJOYABLENESS CONTINUUM

A high score saying Punish Me. I deserve it.

PLAY ALONG AT HOME!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • The punisher reloads
  • You have an audible reaction to an on-screen death
  • Someone looks in or breaks a mirror
  • Someone does cocaine
  • A mid-2000s rock song plays

Double shot if:

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/awfully-good-punisher-war-zone/

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