I swear I have been waiting for them to get the PUNISHER right since the 80s. I remember watching ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and seeing a preview clip of Dolph Lundgren spraying bullets from some overpowered rifle and thinking that it had been nailed. Years later, I was in a friend's seedy apartment in Canada watching the Lundgren PUNISHER and pondering the ridiculously overwrought "f-you soliloquy" that Louis Gossett Jr. delivers to Lundgren's Frank Castle. The Ludgren PUNISHER sucked. But as I do with many other films, I chalked it up to experience and let it go. I haven't gone back to it since.
Several years ago, there was a PUNISHER reboot. That time around, it starred some nobody named Thomas Jane and John Travolta. I have to be blunt at this point and say that even though Quentin Tarantino shot a needleful of adrenaline into the heart of Travolta's career, Travolta still sucks. Sure, the curse has been lifted, and he is no longer limited to doing talking baby movies, but still, everything he does has a cornball aspect to it. I am hoping that he delivers for THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3, but the truth of the matter is that a Travolta billing in any film is a buzzkill. Digression aside, the Thomas Jane PUNISHER sucked. Travolta wasn't completely to blame for it, but he sure wasn't innocent. There was a scene in that version of the film that showed the balls-out determination of the comic book character also known as Frank Castle. In that particular scene, he goes up against a huge eastern bloc brute, and everything in Castle's apartment gets destroyed. Castle's gun barrel even gets bent in that scene. But I am speaking about a minute of worthwhile footage. And it does not redeem the rest of the film which amounts to more than an hour of nose-hair curling fecal matter.
Enter 2008, the year of pre-production rumors for PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. Ex-stunt woman Lexi Alexander delivered the third swing at bat for the PUNISHER in December. It was hard to muster up any hope for this thing, but I couldn't help it. I posted in the Mediasaurs forums like a maniac everytime something new about the film surfaced. I did come at the project with more curiosity than hope, and that is probably what saved me. I have to say that Ray Stevenson becomes the Punisher. He is as grim and torn as the Frank Castle that I remember from my comic-book drenched childhood. The weaponry in this film is fantastic. The gunfire is beautiful. Castle is vulnerable and takes many rounds to his body armor throughout. Is it good? It beats the hell out of the previous two. But beating the hell out of the previous two is akin to shooting a large, retarded, one-eyed fish in a barrel. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is a fun kick in the pants, but it isn't a fantastic movie. Dominic West (the WIRE'S McNulty) plays Jigsaw, the antagonist. I love West's work, but he seemed unsure of his footing as this character. All levels of probability in this film are GONE. The murder rate is over the top, and all levels of depravity are present, including cannibalism. Ray Stevenson paves his way with bullets, and there are some cynical twists of fate, particularly towards the end. I swear to you that when he winds up his Punisher war machine, you will be amazed. This Punisher is an ass-kicking machine who clears the room with gunfire, reloads and then executes the survivors. His murder isn't completely heartless though, when he accidentally takes out an undercover Federal agent, Castle goes into a funk. This is a man who has had his family destroyed before his eyes and becomes the physical incarnation of retribution. It is a vision. It is a beautiful sight to behold. Unfortunately, it is compromised. The compromise is that we have seen the bulk of this before. If this is what had been delivered in the 80s, we would have been onto something. It is unfortunate that it has taken 20 years to get a Punisher film almost correct. Unfortunately, vendetta films of this caliber have been cycled through like the spent chambers of a six-shooter. It is also unfortunate that I am willing to accept this sub-par film because they have failed so offensively in the past. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is not the mediocrity of the past, but it is not a great film either. For this Frank Castle fan it is simply too little too late.