Ray Stevenson shines as the titular vigilante facing off against a disfigured mobster known as Jigsaw.
As of this writing, Stevenson’s performance remains the best interpretation of Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher. While other performers before and since have brought pieces, Stevenson delivers the full package. His heavy brow, slicked back hair, weary eyes, and hulking physique combine to portray a man devoid of emotion but capable of great violence. A telling scene comes early when a police officer gets the drop on him, ordering Castle’s hands in the air. Stevenson freezes, then clasps his hands behind his head and turns, towering over the officer by a good six inches. Shaking, the officer lets Castle walk, then punches himself in the face to affect a struggle.
But the film isn’t up to Stevenson’s performance. Credited to three writers, the script feels like three different movies stitched together.
The film opens with a mob dinner. Dominic West plays Billy, a mobster chaffing at the aging Don’s refusal to allow a deal involving smuggling bio-weapons through the city’s docks, all while primping at any sight of his reflection. As the criminals sit down to eat, the lights go dark. A flare sparks and in the red light we see Stevenson towering in the background, the Punisher’s trademark skull almost glowing on his chest. He pounces forward, his hands brandishing knives and, in a scissoring motion, decapitates the Don.
This sort of over-the-top violence strikes the perfect tone, but the film goes too far, having Stevenson hook his knees into the chandelier and spin upside down, spraying bullets into the mob goons. Wrong for the Punisher, but one wonders if it didn’t inspire the creators behind Deadpool.
Anyway, the film soon rights itself with the single best Punisher moment on film to date. A gang of Irish parkour enthusiasts “on a constant meth high” acting as couriers for Billy are travelling across the city via rooftops. As a member somersaults over an alley gap, a rocket-propelled grenade enters the frame from below, streaks up, and pulverizes the gang member, reducing him to gory bits of splatter. Cut to the Punisher, lowering the RPG and stepping forward.
More than any scene before or since, this bit of laugh-out-loud brutal inanity recreates the dark comedy tone present in writer Garth Ennis’s “Welcome Back, Frank” story line in the comics.
But this perfection proves short-lived, as Billy—in a failed attempt to escape the Punisher—ends up in a vat of glass bottles prepped for recycling. Rather than kill Billy outright, the Punisher turns on the machine, which creates a kind of whirlpool of broken glass. Police intervene in time to save Billy, but not his face.
Next, a scene straight out of Tim Burton’s Batman. Billy has undergone reconstructive surgery. Gauze wraps his face. The surgeon removes the gauze, reminding Billy of the challenge his wounds presented. Billy sees his repaired face in a handheld mirror and his mind snaps as he shatters the mirror in a fit of rage. One of his henchmen vomits at the sight.
“Sorry about that, Billy,” another henchman says.
“Billy is dead. From now on, you call me Jigsaw,” says West, who turns to the camera, revealing his grotesque visage, his face stitched together in patches, the oversized black sutures evoking a cartoon Frankenstein. But this isn’t Batman and we don’t need a Joker.
Meanwhile, the Punisher is distraught over killing an undercover officer. We get scenes of him sulking around and wailing at his family’s graves. He announces he’s abandoning his war on crime. Before he leaves the city, he visits the undercover officer’s widow. On the doorstep, he meets her pre-teen daughter. Frank kneels down and has a quiet moment with the young girl before her mother bursts out and levels a gun to the kneeling Punisher’s temple.
“What makes you think you could come here?” she says.
“You’ll scare the girl,” replies Frank in a calm tone.
She asks why he’s there. Frank gestures toward a bag of money he’d left on the doorstop. She refuses. “Who punishes you?” she asks with tears in her eyes.
Frank rises to his full height, towering over the widow. He grabs the pistol’s barrel and levels it with his chest.
“He taught you how to shoot,” he says in a quiet voice. “A good agent keeps his family safe, but he couldn’t always be here.”
“He took you out to the range,” he continues. “He showed you what to do. This is where you do it. Squeeze. Don’t pull.”
It’s an effective scene and proof Stevenson can play the quiet emotional beats as well as the big physical ones. But it’s hard to buy the gravitas the scene is selling when just a few minutes prior the film was blowing up meth addled parkour gangsters with RPGs.
Worse still, the film doubles down on this angle, with the Punisher moping around and only getting involved after Jigsaw targets the widow and her daughter.
Indeed, Jigsaw becomes the film’s focus. He and his henchmen go to the city mental hospital and free Jigsaw’s cannibalistic brother Jim. A redundant character, Jim’s a violent mental simpleton who exists to spoon feed exposition to the audience and engage in the action that should have been Jigsaw’s. There’s also a side-plot involving the undercover agent’s former partner. All detract from the Punisher and how he’s not punishing.
Why is it so hard? Have a cast of over-the-top mobsters doing despicable things. Set the Punisher loose for ninety minutes of over-the-top violence as he punishes them in excessive but creative ways. Imagine Batman, but lethal. Why must the writers wallow in angst or shift focus from the Punisher?
Perhaps there’s hope. Subsequent films like Dredd showed how a comic book actioner can remain grounded by avoiding a Dick Tracy-style villain, while Deadpool committed to its over-the-top comedic violence by eschewing any overwrought melodrama. And the John Wick franchise shows there’s appetite for stylized revenge pictures.
But for now, War Zone remains the closest thing to a good Punisher adaptation. It’s far from perfect, but delivers moments of perfection.