The first two efforts to bring Marvel's Punisher to the screen were creative abortions and I held out little hope for the third, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, upon learning it would soon be coming to a theater near me. There were early reports that Lions Gate (the studio behind it) was insisting it be a wimpy PG-13 flick. I knew nothing of the director--if I'd heard then that it was being made by a female German kickboxer, it would have probably drawn a lot more of my interest--and as it turned out, the movie was savaged by critics and pulled from theaters by the studio almost immediately after its release. Sounds like another pooch in the Punisher pound and I paid it little mind.
But the film grew a
following. The internet buzzed with its words of praise, their
persistent insistence that someone had finally gotten the Punisher
right. This buzz drew sometimes angry retorts from those unfortunate
souls--few but loud--who inexplicably found something of merit in the
meritless Thomas Jane Punisher film from 2004. They resented these
mouthy upstarts' insistence that their beloved turd of a movie had been
upstaged and insisted that WAR ZONE was just a dumb gorefest.
PWZ, as it turns out, was
something of a dumb gorefest. It was also an absolute blast from
beginning to end. Saying it's easily the best screen adaptation of the
Punisher isn't really saying much--neither of the other two films even
tried. It isn't sufficient to say it's the best we're ever likely to get
either, because that sounds like we're settling for something that
isn't as good as it could have (or should have) been. No, it's much
closer to the mark to say PWZ is a great adaptation of the Punisher.
the years, there have been a few different "versions" of the Punisher
and it should go without saying that as conceptually different as they
are, no movie can be a great adaptation of all of them. PWZ isn't about
the original version, which was, conceptually speaking, a top-to-bottom
ripoff of Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan the Executioner character (had
Pendleton ever decided to sue, Marvel would have lost a bundle). PWZ
primarily adapts the far more interesting and original version of the
character portrayed in Garth Ennis' very long run on the title.
Ennis, those behind PWZ knew what they had in the Punisher; a
relatively simple pulp character who rages through a comic-book world of
over-the-top-of-the-top ultraviolence, dishing out justice to
superhumanly inhuman scum. That's what PWZ delivers in spades, a solid,
violent, entertaining exploitation actioneer (albeit one made on a
budget of which most exploitation films could only dream). And that's
exactly what a Punisher film should be.
Stevenson, a dead ringer for the comic character, is rock-solid in the
part, even if it does mostly just require him to look rock-solid, and
Dominic West does a first-rate turn as the villainous Jigsaw. Director
Lexi Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer tried an interesting
experiment with the film's color scheme, attempting to replicate the
color schemes of the comics. It succeeds, and makes for an interesting
effect on screen. And the ending of the film? FANTASTIC!
PWZ wasn't treated very well by Lions Gate. The production had been
troubled from the beginning, and many of its troubles had been very
public. Reading between the lines of the contemporaneous reporting, it
seems as if the studio suits were determined to wring an anemic PG-13
film out of the material and when this wasn't possible, set out to
intentionally make it fail in order to prove their "point." What isn't
in any way speculative is that the film was dumped into wide release
with virtually no promotion at all then pulled from theaters after only a
few days and written off as a flop. Few were even given the chance to
hear of its existence and of those who did, memories of the earlier
Punisher films, unleavened by any knowledge that this one would be any
different, no doubt kept large swathes of potential audience away in
droves. It was never even given a chance and that it was deprived of any
chance in such a dramatic way strongly suggests someone really had it
in for the movie.
Now that Marvel is making their own movies,
perhaps they should buy back their rights. I suspect they could get them
for pretty cheap. Stevenson has expressed his enthusiastic desire to
continue with the character as long as he's able. I suspect Lexi
Alexander could be lured back for another go 'round. I'd like to see it
happen. PWZ was the third attempt at a Punisher film but it's the only
one that earned what the others got--another chance.
A "gorefest" relatively speaking, that is. For a contemporary
"mainstream" film, that label would probably apply. For an action
picture made these days--or, at least, one that isn't the latest
RAMBO--it also seems appropriate. As a hardcore horror buff, I wouldn't
personally regard it as a "gorefest" in general, but still, PWZ offers
bloody deaths via various objects through the throat, one exploding head
after another via gunshot, decapitations, cannibalism, a guy ground up
in a glass grinder, a fellow hacked up with an axe, a man roasted on a
spit over an open flame and so on. For some reason, the filmmakers, in
assembling their list of horrors to cover, missed necrophilia. Something
to save for the sequel, I suppose.
 By upbudget Hollywood
standards, though, PWZ is a very small-budgeted film. It cost less than
the 2004 feature but managed to be vastly superior.