Superhero Movie Month: "Punisher: War Zone" Review

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Win Captain America's Shield Plus The Winter Soldier on Blu-ray Before It's Released! Enter Here!!

Rating: R
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: December 5, 2008
Directed by: Lexi Alexander
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama

"Punisher: War Zone" is based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero Frank Castle. In the film, the third of the comic book series franchise to reach the silver screen, Castle is better known by his vigilante moniker, the Punisher. In "Punisher: War Zone," Castle as the Punisher takes it upon himself to commence and wage what becomes a one-man war against a terribly disfigured mob boss called Jigsaw.

"Punisher: War Zone" is not quite a sequel to "The Punisher," the 2004 film immediately proceeding it in the cinematic franchise. Instead, "Punisher: War Zone" is more a retelling of the tale of how Castle became a vigilante and a grim crime fighter. This general plotline crops up in "The Punisher" but ends up more fully fleshed out in this installment.

Irish actor Ray Stevenson plays the title role of the Punisher in this film, replacing Thomas Jane. Stevenson provides a compelling performance as an angst-ridden, dark character with a mission. In an early encounter with the menacing mob boss, Jigsaw, Castle inadvertently causes the death of an undercover agent. He ends up compelled to right this wrong by taking on and destroying Jigsaw, more to rectify the loss sustained by the murdered agent's spouse than perhaps anything else. Throughout the film, there remains a hint that he only uses the retribution motif as an excuse for doing what he feels compelled to do even before the undercover agent is killed.

Dominic West portrays the frightful Jigsaw, whose real name is Billy Russoti, a menacing mobster. Castle encounters Russoti at the same time the undercover agent is killed. During this sequence, the Jigsaw persona is born. Russoti manages to escape to a recycling plant he owns.

Once at the recycling plant, Russoti ends up thrown into a glass-crushing machine, which causes his unimaginable disfigurement and leads to the incarnation of Jigsaw. This genesis of Jigsaw bears striking similarities to that of The Joker in the iconic "Batman" franchise of films. Although Castle, as the Punisher, targets Russoti to avenge the death of the undercover agent, Russoti targets the Punisher, blaming the vigilante for his horrific disfigurement.

West as Russoti manages a gut-wrenching physical transformation after being diced in a glass crushing machine, thanks to a marvelous makeup crew on the set. He additionally seems to be stripped of what limited humanity he possessed as a mobster of repute before the tango with the crusher. Playing a character truly stripped of any shred of humanity after his physical being is no less than shredded represents a Herculean task for any actor. West delivers.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials blame the Punisher for the undercover officer's death. They do not know who is responsible, and some do not seem to particularly care. All surface evidence points to Castle or the Punisher, and the dead agent's cohorts mean to look no further. This plot arc, in which the Punisher is the target of revenge by law enforcement, is what positions him as an anti-hero. Although the Punisher existed prior to the incident giving rise to the cop's death and the birth of Jigsaw, the film fills in the blanks of how he became both a crime-fighting vigilante and a target of law enforcement.

Dash Mihok turns in a strong and believable performance as the Punisher's primary law enforcement nemesis, Martin Soap. Soap is tireless in his pursuit of the Punisher after his own colleague's killing. Near the end of the movie, and through a multitude of plot twists, turns and deviations, Soap learns the truth of how the undercover officer perished. He understands the Punisher's lack of culpability in the matter. Soap tries to convince the Punisher to abandon his vigilante status and directly join forces with the "good guys" of law enforcement, a invitation declined by the singular avenger.

Starring in the Showtime original series "Dexter," Julie Benz is no stranger to vigilantism and anti-heroes. In "Punisher: War Zone," Benz delivers a solid performance as the grieving widow of the murdered undercover cop, Angela is the first primary character in the film to recognize that the Punisher is not so much a criminal as he is an agent of justice.

The movie wraps up with Martin Soap facing a homicidal mugger. The Punisher comes to his rescue, dispatching the mugger coldly. At this juncture, Soap realizes that the Punisher is cast in the most appropriate role possible, as a renegade vigilante capable of undertaking tasks in a way that is impossible for rank-and-file law enforcement personnel.