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PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok, Wayne Knight
Director: Lexi Alexander
Audio: DTS HD 7.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: See Review
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: March 17, 2009

“God be with you, Frank.”

“Sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God.”

Film *** (On the Guilty Pleasure Scale)

It seems that Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, can’t seem to get a fair break when it comes to a big screen adaptation. There was the first attempt in 1989 with Dolph Lungdren which remains an abomination for both moviegoers and Punisher fans alike. It ended up going straight to video and Lungdren didn’t even bother to don the classic skull logo on his wardrobe…need I say more?

Then came the 2004 version with Thomas Jane, which I absolutely loved. Not only did I find it to perfectly reflect the dark and brutal aspects of the Marvel comic, but Jane was brilliant in the title role. The film did have its share of detractors, possibly due to the movie’s slightly noir-ish approach instead of going all out with wall-to-wall violence, which it certainly had in just the right doses.

As a diehard Punisher fan, I was more than satisfied and couldn’t wait to see Thomas Jane take one the role again if a sequel ever presented itself. Jane himself even campaigned hard to get a sequel made. But after taking one look at the script that was given to him, he immediately passed on the project.

With no other choice in sight, the character was about to get a reboot just like that of The Incredible Hulk. I had mixed feelings on the idea of a Punisher reboot. The very notion of a reboot immediately labels the previous movie as a failure or very flawed in the slightest, which I don’t think it is (especially in the ways that the 2003 Hulk was), but at the same time I’m such a loyal fan of the character that I do want to see him represented on the big screen in the best way possible.

So now we have Punisher: War Zone, a bombastically-violent-and-proud-of-it interpretation of the character that earns its mark as the best bad movie of 2008, where as Shoot ‘Em Up easily took the prize in the previous year. It would easily qualify for the most violent movie of last year, but because of Rambo it will have to accept a tie. In a funny twist, both films were released by Lions Gate, who I immensely applaud in their continuing effort to incorporate grindhouse-level violence in contemporary movies.

And the movie wastes no time in establishing the fact that in this movie, Frank Castle will be a walking, talking killing machine. Here, he is armed with an arsenal of weapons big enough to make even Schwarzenegger from Commando weep. As for dialogue, Castle is even given less than Schwarzenegger in Commando. Imagine that?

For this movie, the character is now inhabited by the hulky and intimidating Irish actor Ray Stevenson, known mainly for his work on the acclaimed HBO series Rome. Though I still stand by my opinion that Thomas Jane remains the best Punisher to date, Stevenson’s physical qualities help to create a striking resemblance to the look of the character in the comics. You buy him as The Punisher right from the very first frame.

The plot of War Zone isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t need to be. Frank Castle is gunning down mob organizations all over New York City. Once the opening credits end, we cut to Castle preparing to storm the mansion of an elderly mob boss who’s just been acquitted.

And when Frank makes an entrance, boy does he ever? He doesn’t just kill the mafia don; he slices his head right off! Then, he turns to the mobster’s wife and cracks her neck instantly. Yep, this is one of THOSE kinds of movies, baby!

One of the attractions of War Zone is the many different ways in which The Punisher dispatches his victims. He kills so many people in so many different, and creative, ways. I can’t even allow myself to spoil the many bloody kills, except to say that it would very possible to publish a book called “The Million Ways to Make a Head Explode” by Frank Castle.

During the course of his slaughtering of mobsters, he causes the grisly demise of top-level gangster Billy Russoti (Dominic West). How does this happen, you’re probably asking. Russoti falls into a glass-grinding machine, at which point Castle makes sure he is crushed along with every bit of glass, making Jack Nicholson’s pre-Joker demise in Batman look rather enjoyable.

After an incomprehensible amount of facial stitching, Russoti remerges as the horribly disfigured Jigsaw. And truth be told, though Heath Ledger’s Joker is unquestionably a far superior and more frightening comic book villain, I can easily gaze at his face and not have the urge to vomit, unlike when I look at Jigsaw’s face. In other words, the makeup job on this character is pretty striking.

Having just now realized that I’ve given far too much plot explanation for such a movie, I’m just going to stop and say that if you love grindhouse-level violence or simply a Punisher fan a heart, you should have no problem at all embracing Punisher: War Zone. All you need is about three seconds of random footage from the movie in order to help you determine whether or not this movie is for you. I love blatantly, bloody violent movies that know they are just that and nothing more, and this is indeed a fantastic example of that.

Though the 2004 movie remains the truest cinematic interpretation of Frank Castle, Punisher: War Zone is about as ridiculously awesome as a trashy movie can get, with all of the outlandish violence that makes The Punisher the one-of-a-kind character he is in the comic book universe.

Video ****

This might just be the single best Blu-ray presentation I’ve seen from Lions Gate. Of all Punisher movies, this movie definitely encompasses the most visually assaulting look. The color tone is extravagant, and mixed with the high contrast it results in a picture quality that is very much in your face right from the eye-gazing opening credit sequence. A great deal of the movie is set in darkened areas or at nighttime, so the fact that the 1080p can make the most of such settings is definitely a remarkable quality.  

Audio ****

Holy hell, this is such a fantastic piece of audio that I’m not even sure that four stars is a high enough rating. Lions Gate is one of the few studios that incorporates the 7.1 DTS HD mix, and though every one of their releases has sounded amazing in this master audio track, it has never sounded THIS fantastic before. Action, action, action is the main attraction here and trust me when I say that all senses will be assaulted. Music and dialogue also sound tremendous in delivery/playback. As of now, this is easily the best sounding Blu-ray disc of the year thus far.

Features ***

The disc includes a commentary with director Lexi Alexander and director of photography Steve Gainer, several featurettes including “Training To Become The Punisher”, “The Making Of Punisher: War Zone”, “Creating The look Of Punisher: War Zone”, “Meet Jigsaw” and “Weapons Of The Punisher”. Lastly, we get a Theatrical Trailer, Bonus Previews for additional Lions Gate releases and MoLog, a BD Live feature.

Summary:

Though I wasn’t in favor of The Punisher getting a reboot, Punisher: War Zone was pretty much a step in the best possible direction; that of fantastic trashy cinema. Shut the brain cells off, appreciate the many ways in which Frank Castle can kill people, and you’re bound to have one totally kick-ass time. And on Blu-ray, the kick-ass quality is upgraded even further!

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