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On December 5th of 2008 Lionsgate quietly released Punisher: War Zone in theatres to the tune of about $4.3 million. There was little fanfare, the critics mostly hated it, and it was quickly forgotten as more appropriate Christmas time movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bedtime Stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Marley and Me made their way into theatres. It turns out that nearly all of us lost out on one of the year’s most ridiculously entertaining movies, and a perfect bookend to a year starting with Rambo.

Punisher: War Zone
Lionsgate’s first shot at a Punisher movie resulted in 2004’s The Punisher, staring Thomas Jane as the title character and John Travolta as his villain, Howard Saint. The film grossed a respectable $53 million worldwide, but wasn’t very well liked among critics or fans, though everyone seemed to be in agreement that Jane effectively embodied the character with strength and a bit of soul. The inevitable sequel was initially fast tracked, with Jane talking up the process with what appeared to be genuine excitement. Apparently Jane could only wait so long for the sequel to get off the ground, and left the project. When he left most of us lost interest. Lexi Alexander, director of Green Street Hooligans, eventually took on the reigns, which led to almost a year of bizarre rumours and innuendos. Who knew the German kickboxing and karate champion had such a kick-ass little film in her, and that those early fears of a PG-13 Punisher were so very far off base?

I haven’t paid much attention to the Punisher comic book since I was a kid, but have read a few of the Max titles, specifically Garth Ennis’ ‘Welcome Back Frank’ (which was the basis for the Jane-voiced Punisher video game that followed the 2004 release). The character is extremely one note, and until the adult oriented Max line, served very little purpose in the Comic Code loving studio’s production studio. Once Marvel was willing to let the character be as dark, violent and disturbing as he needed to be he was at least nominally interesting. The Jane movie was well made, and Jane himself was genuinely great in the role, but save a few good fist fights it didn’t capture the grimy and grotesque nature of the Ennis reboot. Alexander fully embraces the two-dimensional nature of the character, presenting him as a killing machine, and presenting his kills as comically over-indulgent.

Punisher: War Zone
I’ll pause right here to make it perfectly clear how unbelievably stupid Punisher: War Zone is. The stupid levels are epic. Minus the brutal violence the plot would struggle to fill a twenty-two minute animated episode. Though it isn’t actually a sequel to the Jane film (which in itself is stupid considering how little back story is presented), War Zone follows the set in stone tropes of the superhero sequel, including a guilt induced loss of ‘powers’, and a public knowledge of his existence. The supervillain’s origin is almost identical to the Joker’s origin in Tim Burton’s Batman, and his personality is without a doubt Nicholson-lite by way of Brooklyn. The other villains are like twentieth generation photocopies of classic characters, including the Godfather, and Hannibal Lector. There isn’t an ounce of originality on display.

Fortunately none of this epic stupidity seems to be lost on any of the actors, who are all stuck on eleven. All of them, from the major players to the incidental background characters with no lines. Everyone’s full of piss, vinegar, cultural stereotypes, and apparently a lot of blood bags. I’m guessing every character sheet consisted of an explanation of the appropriate accent. For example:

Quote: Thug #46: Italian-American. Must say ‘Wass’a mattah you’ at least twice per on screen minute. All vowels must be elongated, and ‘er’ sounds should be switched to ‘oy’ sounds. Speaking quickly is also advised. For further character study please rent Saturday Night Fever.

Punisher: War Zone
In the first ten minutes Frank Castle takes out a room full of mobsters, crescendoing with an especially brutal chair leg to the eye. The sheer volume of carnage in this scene is almost overwhelming, yet Alexander hasn’t even approached blowing her load (so to speak, obviously). There’s a bit of a lull in action following the next scene, which sees Castle fix his broken nose with a pencil, and the film’s lead villain fall into a glass crusher, but the dramatic scenes aren’t boring (despite overwhelming clichés), and are spiked with bits of ultra-violence all their own. Then, when things get going again, the frequency of the violence is so extreme (how did this not get an NC-17?) action fans can’t help but bow in reverence.

Video


There is an artlessness to the writing of Punisher: War Zone, but despite a lack of restraint, the visual output is expressionistic, and incredibly true to the look of the comic’s panels. Cinematographer Steve Gainer lights the film with hard colours, but doesn’t stand on only one hue per scene. Most scenes feature hard contrast blacks, and one overall colour tint, usually blue, which is then pocked with opposing highlights, usually orange or violet. Like I said, the set-ups aren’t subtle, but they look genuinely comic book. I compare the look to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, rather than Sin City or 300.

Punisher: War Zone
The film’s only real, non-overcast day light sequence—the funeral of the undercover cop Castle accidentally kills—features some of the most extreme contrasting elements I’ve ever seen on my television. The black wardrobe (it’s a funeral) is jet black, revealing positively zero detail, yet the extruding heads are white as ghosts (even the scene’s sole black actor appears very light). The surrounding area is blanketed in fall leaves, blaring reds, yellows, and oranges, yet none of these hues overlap each other, the blacks, or the detailed white faces. I can imagine scenes like these being rife with compression artefacts on standard definition.

Audio


The audio output is equally unrestrained, effectively equalling a comic book’s sound effects balloon in genuine audio. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is positively flooded with over-the-top sound effects. The gun shots are super loud, and super varied, the punches feature more bass than the average low-rider, and the gush of splattering blood is nearly deafening at some points. Every channel on the track is exploited for every ounce of noise possible. The dialogue is all clear and stuff, but who cares when the effects audio is this ridiculous?

Punisher: War Zone
Nu-Metal fans will also be in hog heaven with this track. The aggression behind the soundtrack is infectious, and I don’t even really like Nu-Metal (beyond Static X, represent). The scored bits are ridiculous too, landing somewhere between Batman Begins, and the latest Rambo movie. Yet again, the ridiculousness is infectious, and even as a critical audience I couldn’t help myself. On the surround track the strings are encompassing, the guitars whale and grind all around the viewer and the double bass drums just about blow out the subwoofer.

Extras


Extras begin as most extras do with an amusing commentary track featuring director Lexi Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer. Gainer’s presence pushes much of the discussion towards the technical achievements, and there’s a general avoidance of the behind the scenes strife, but the commentary’s tone is warm, informative, and very funny. I personally haven’t read the issues of the comic that the filmmakers adapted, so it was especially nice to have the specific frames pointed out. Alexander has no qualms about the film’s tone, and admits to the intended humour as well. Her English is perfect, but her use of English expressions is occasionally off, like the use of ‘Thorn in my eye’ instead of ‘Thorn in my side’, which is amusingly apt considering the film’s ultra-violent content.

Punisher: War Zone
‘The Making of Punisher: War Zone’ is an effective trailer that doesn’t really tell us anything about the making of the movie, but does entertain as a gore reel, and does feature some cast and crew interviews and behind the scenes footage. Basically, it’s one big love-fest, made to sell the movie’s good points to the nth degree, but there are some nice insights into character. Steve Gainer makes comparisons to Dick Tracy, which is unfortunate for me, because I thought I was being clever with my video section review. The featurette is only nine minutes, and doesn’t feature the comic panel comparisons I was hoping for.

‘Meet Jigsaw’ is a rather brief (three and a half minutes) and fluffy look at the character of Jigsaw, mostly focusing on his make-up appliances. ‘Weapons of The Punisher’ is another of these rather dull and brief (four and a half minute) looks at the weaponry of a film that often accompanies gun-heavy movies. I’d prefer a good look at the gory effects myself. ‘Training to Become the Punisher’ is more of the same, taking a six minute look at Ray Stevenson’s Marine training. ‘Creating the Look of the Film’ again doesn’t feature any comparison shots to the comic books the filmmakers keep talking about, but is rather an uninteresting look at the films lighting. It runs only three minutes. The disc is completed by the theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

Punisher: War Zone

Overall


There’s one kill in Punisher: War Zone that’s so good, and so hilarious, it almost rivals the Sam Jackson shark kill in Deep Blue Sea—almost. I don’t want to go into it too much, because I honestly want action fans to see the film with wide open minds like I did, so I’ll just hint—keep your eye on the Parkour guys. Just watch them really, really close. Fans of the comic, fans of both previous film versions, fans of ‘classic’ revenge thrillers, fans of ‘80s and ‘90s action (Steven Seagal and JCVD stuff), even horror fans looking for their gore fix, will all love this dumb as nails movie. It’s a blast, and on Blu-ray the audio and video is almost perfect, better representing the comic book induced style. See it with a dozen or so of your rowdiest friends.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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