a critiQal film review Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Plot: Waging his one-man war on the world of organized crime, ruthless vigilante-hero Frank Castle (Stevenson) sets his sights on overeager mob boss, Billy Russoti (West). After Russoti is left horribly disfigured by Castle, he sets out for vengeance under his new alias: Jigsaw.

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So there’s a new Marvel movie on DVD…and most of us probably missed it on it’s run through the theaters. While huge hits like Iron Man (2008) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) garnered all the attention last year, another Marvel comics’ film, Punisher: War Zone was released last fall. A semi-sequel to The Punisher (2004), the film follows the antics of famed vigilante killer Frank Castle, as he signle-handedly cleans up the streets.

Since the last film was so dull and boring, I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing what kind of treatment this iconic vengeance killer would get this time around. But, when we went to visit relatives this weekend, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up on action flicks – and Blockbuster® had plenty of copies of Punisher: War Zone.

Ray Stevenson takes over the role of Frank Castle, thankfully kicking Thomas Jane’s weak-looking butt to the curb. While Ray Stevenson isn’t well-known in the movie biz (mostly a TV actor, he recently starred in “Rome” (TV)), he does fit the part a bit better than Jane. Since he’s sporting a rather thick bullet-proof vest – complete with what looks to be a neck brace – he at least looks a bit more the part than Jane did. Sure, he has difficulty when he’s trying to convey emotions like sadness, but he does do the gruff vengeance thing well.

There are a couple of surprises in the casting, which add a bit to the film. Colin Salmon (who gave such a memorable performance in Resident Evil (2002)) is fun to watch, and Julie Benz (Rambo (2008)) brings an air of innocence to her role – something much needed in this rather dark film. Even Wayne Knight – who hasn’t popped up for a memorable performance in a film since Jurassic Park (1993), manages to push aside viewers’ automatic association with Jerry’s arch-nemesis Newman on “Seinfeld” (TV) to turn in a few decent sequences.

While The Punisher (2004) concentrated on how Frank Castle became the vengeance killer, this semi-sequel concentrates instead on one event in Castle’s one-man war on the bad guys. It seems to fit much better with the character, and the actor doesn’t need to spend as much time reaching his deeper emotions.

This time around, the story seems more complex as well. Rather than just being about a vengeance killing, Castle has to deal with what happens when the wrong person ends up in his gun sights – an occurrence that really makes him question if he’s doing the right thing anymore. It’s more involving to the viewers, because, while they know what’s probably going to happen in the end, they don’t quite know what to expect along the way.

Will Castle quit, only to be dragged back into it at the end, for one last time, or will he fight on despite his reservations, only to leave himself more vulnerable in a firefight? When the viewer is presented with a situation like this – even though it may be a cliche – they find themselves wanting to stick around, just to see how the story unfolds.

Punisher: War Zone, like it’s predecessor The Punisher (2004), is a violent, gritty film. While it’s predecessors at times brought the violence to a point of it being uncomfortable for viewers (the torture sequence), this time around the film knows where to draw the line – true, it’s incredibly violent, but the scenes are quick – no long, drawn out sequences like the first film. – nothing is on-screen long enough to make the viewer uncomfortable.

That being said, the slightly below-par special effects leave a little something to be desired. While mayhem abounds, sequences of gunshot impacts look a bit fake, as does bad guy Jigsaw’s face makeup. Instead of looking like a horribly disfigured guy, Jigsaw comes across as a guy wearing a bad mask more than anything else. As for the gunshot wounds, well, most viewers will be able to tell when they cut away from the live action and insert the exploding mannequins. While this isn’t always the case (a rooftop vaporization is surprisingly decent – if a bit too clean), these little glitches do detract a bit from the film – but also help keep the film’s popcorn appeal, so maybe the slightly shoddy effects are done intentionally.

While it’s not a film that will stand up to repeated viewings, Punisher: War Zone is a decent action flick that may remind viewers a bit of the action hero heyday – albeit on a rather more violent scale. Thanks to a few appearances from familiar – and likable – characters and a lead actor who at least partially seems to fit the image of Frank Castle, Punisher: War Zone easily tops . and may be the best attempt so far at bringing this dark Marvel character to life.

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