2016 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: Lexi Alexander’s ‘Punisher: War Zone’ (2008)

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We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 22nd entry, we’re loading our guns and dishing out justice in Lexi Alexander’s bonkers, violent and thrilling ‘Punisher: War Zone.’

How We Failed It

The Punisher is a rare comic book character that has had multiple and successful screen incarnations. Jon Bernthal’s take on the character in season 2 of Daredevil was immediately iconic, and don’t forget about the Thomas Jane films The Punisher and Dirty Laundry. Yet, it’s taken three attempts just this century for the character to find economic and critical success. As great as each iteration has been, none of them has the inherent hard-R violence and lunacy at the heart of the character in Lexi Alexander’s bonkers, ultra-violent and thrilling Punisher: War Zone.

Having already exacted revenge for his family’s death, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) now wages a war on the crime families of New York City. In his effort to take down the Italian mob, he ends up killing an undercover FBI agent, setting the deceased agent’s partner, Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), on a manhunt for him. In addition to the law, a mob boss that Castle left for dead (and disfigured in a gruesome attack) has reemerged as Jigsaw (Dominic West) and is intent on getting revenge.

These days, releasing a comic book movie is pretty much the same act as printing money, as they are almost guaranteed to make a killing. War Zone was not one of those films. The movie earned only just over $4 million on opening weekend and would sputter out its domestic run at just $8 million during a three week run in theaters, with foreign intakes only shoving its worldwide total to $10 million, less than three times of what its $35 million budget was. The Punisher has always been a sort of cult character, never having the reach and presence of top tier comic book properties like Superman, Spider-Man or Batman. Even with a small-for-a-comic-book-film budget like $35 million, making that back was always going to be a challenge in the saturated superhero landscape. What further alienated it was being one of the few superhero films to be rated R. Don’t get me wrong, the film more than earns that rating, but it closed itself off to a family audiences.

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Critics were even more unforgiving than audiences. Roger Ebert was split on the film, acknowledging Alexander’s skill yet still not loving it: “You used to be able to depend on a bad film being poorly made. No longer. The Punisher: War Zone is one of the best-made bad movies I’ve seen. It looks great, it hurtles through its paces and is well-acted. The soundtrack is like elevator music if the elevator were in a death plunge. The special effects are state of the art. Its only flaw is that it’s disgusting.”

Keith Phipps wasn’t sold either, writing “…this is junk, a bunch of hard-R action scenes kept together by the thinnest of plots. Which would be fine if it were entertaining junk, but the parade of dimly lit skull explosions grows old quickly, and director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) brings neither energy nor gravity to the over-the-top violence, which would feel excessive if the film knew the meaning of the word excess. It’s a joyless plunge into gunfire that doesn’t even know how to draw blood.”

The film’s failure sent Alexander into director prison, as she’s only done one film since. Even so, she’s recently delved into television, directing a standout episode of Arrow this season. It’s a shame that Alexander got dealt this hand, as not only did her terrific work get buried, but it really shows the sick double standard that exists for female directors. She had one failure and still fighting to get another film made. We should have had three more Alexander films by now. Meanwhile, male directors like Zack Snyder can have three awfully made box office bombs in a row (Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians and Sucker Punch) and still get a crack at whatever superhero property he wants. Female talents get locked out despite making terrific films like Alexander did with War Zone.

Why It’s Great

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War Zone refreshingly does away with the narrative trappings of origin stories and instead picks up with Frank Castle well into his duties and legend as The Punisher. Flashbacks to his family’s murder are used to inform us of where Castle is at mentally, rather than bog viewers down by telling a story that fans already know. Few comic book films have been so bold, but War Zone succeeds for it.

Alexander’s images are drenched in neon color saturation and grime with the cinematography by Steve Gainer. Mystical influences of Michael Mann’s Thief and the maximalism of 80s action films merge in the imagery of War Zone. Few films with this much violence have looked so gorgeous. It all helps create and reinforce the heightened reality for this insanity to take place. Alexander shoots her fight scenes in clean, mean and lean takes. They are shot with an intriguing balance of action hero excitement and even-handed coherency. There’s some seriously impressive stuntwork in these hand-to-hand combats, as Alexander and Gainer create some iconic imagery for their film. Jigsaw delivers a sales pitch to other gangsters to join up against The Punisher with a video of an American flag waving behind him while a rendition of “America the Beautiful” plays over the images. Castle stands in front of a church with a neon sign shaped like a cross that reads “Jesus Saves”. The “Jesus” part burns out, leaving just the “Saves” highlighted above Castle as he reaches for his pistol and a gunshot rings out.

Alexander stocks her film with reliable character actors, including Stevenson as Frank Castle. He plays the character just straight enough to make the emotional moments hit while having enough fun to tap into the silliness of the heightened reality this guy lives in. One of the best instances of action hero theatrics and clichés comes when Castle holds a dying comrade who says “See you in hell.” Castle replies “If I see you anywhere near hell, I’ll kick your ass out.” Stevenson hits the dialogue with the perfect balance of winking and sincerity. He plays his interactions with a stealy, even-keeled demeanor. He’s holding all his emotion behind his eyes and they tell a scarred history full of regret and anger. He carries himself with the resolve that he’s destined for hell. When he runs, he does so with the burly urgency of a rhinoceros on fire. Stevenson would have made a great action hero had his star power caught up to his raw talent. He’s big and domineering in the right ways, his steel jaw convincing of his skill in dealing out whoop-ass.

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Dominic West is amazingly hammed up as Jigsaw, adopting an enjoyably ridiculous Italian accent. After all, how seriously can you take a villain named Jigsaw with a comically disfigured face? Doug Hutchison is a good match for West’s over-the-top theatrics, living up to his character’s name of Luny Bin Jim. Colin Salmon is fantastic and game to run with this film’s heightened antics. One scene has Budiansky go into the police station and Salmon milks the glory of lines like “With all due respect, captain…that…is BULLSHIT!!!!” and “YOU KRISPY KREME MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” for all they are worth. Wayne Knight is enjoyable as Castle’s tech expert Microchip, Dash Mihok is convincingly inept as detective Martin Soap and Julie Benz makes memorable moments out her screentime as Angela, the widow of the agent Castle kills.

Alexander offers an homage to the maximalism and ridiculousness of 80s action films, and it shows in how the film revels in its over the top and cartoonishly graphic violence. Instances like Castle snapping his nose back into place and Jigsaw getting his name from getting caught in an industrial blender are particularly gruesome, while the opening is as good an introduction to the film’s ultra violent tendencies as any. The Punisher cuts off a guy’s head, snaps a women’s neck, snaps some more necks and stabs everyone’s heads at the table, and then takes out a bunch of dudes by hanging upside down from spinning chandelier and firing a machine gun for like 30 seconds straight. He also squishes a guy’s eyeball with a chair leg. This all happens in approximately five minutes of screen time. This is how the movie begins, and it only gets more insane and violent from there. Few films are as fun to watch.

Another highlight of extreme ridiculous violence comes from a group of henchman called “McGinty and the Urban Free Flow Gang” who are parkour junkies, constantly on a meth high and lead by a dude with a hilariously bad Irish accent. At one point, Castle kills one of them by firing a rocket launcher, hitting the guy mid-flip between platforms, causing him to explode. Castle impales McGinty by dropping him off a building onto a fence and snaps McGinty’s neck with a kick from above.

Here is a brief list of a few amazing scenes that feature War Zone’s ridiculous and thrilling violence that words can hardly describe in their full glory.

– Castle shoots a grenade into a room full of guys that detonates right in the middle of them, taking them all out.

– An elevator door opens up in front of Castle. The guy in it says “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Then Castle blows the guy’s head off with two pistols.

– Castle spears a guy then throws him on a fire.

– At one part, Castle punches a guy so hard that his punch goes through his head, leaving a bloody gash where his face was.

– When Budiansky is about to cuff a criminal, Castle blows the dude’s head off with a shotgun instead.

This is but a handful of the gloriously gruesome moments in War Zone, and the film is loaded with them. There exists such a thing as the laugh-a-minute comedy, and, well, this is a brutality-a-minute action film. While Jon Bernthal’s iteration of The Punisher on Daredevil currently stands as the most well-known for many fans, Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone is still the most nutty, ambitious and exciting adaptation of the character. Punisher: War Zone is not only one of the best comic book films ever made, it’s also one of the most exciting action films this century.

Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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