The Savage Stack - PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)

Lexi Alexander's insane action/horror take on Frank Castle remains the character's best filmic iteration.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The twenty-ninth entry into this unbroken backlog is the vibrantly hyper-violent comic book cartoon, Punisher: War Zone…

With the announcement of every upcoming tentpole comes the internet’s incessant rumblings regarding how the creatives both in front of and behind the camera should be women, people of color, queer, or a combination of the three. This is a good thing, as one look at a graphic representation regarding the current above the line job distribution in Hollywood reveals quite the disparity. But when these opportunities are earned by those we champion, it’s our job as fans to show up and support them financially. It literally becomes a “put up or shut up” proposition, and unfortunately in the case of Lexi Alexander (a female filmmaker of German/Palestinian descent) and Punisher: War Zone, nobody put the fuck up when the movie hit theaters in December ‘08. Made on the cheap for $30 million, War Zone only grossed $8 million at the US box office (and another $2 million internationally). To put matters in perspective, this third live-action iteration of the character was released the same year Iron Man arrived and brought the beginning of the MCU with it (to the tune of $318 million domestic). Superhero fever was sticky in the air, but somehow War Zone still grossed less than both Elektra and Howard the Duck.

This is a real shame, because War Zone is easily one of the best comic book pictures ever made – a garish mash-up of '80s action film throwback and gory monster movie. Yet that may be the very reason why those who did arrive at their local Regals might’ve been a bit baffled by this brash pop transgression (it received a paltry B- on the oft-faulty audience barometer CinemaScore). Alexander delivers what feels more akin to a splatter aficionado’s half-remembered afternoons getting high and watching Cannon Films in their basement. Her Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) isn’t so much a hero as he is a brutish deliverer of death not too far removed from Jason Voorhees. Tales of his crime syndicate executions and the files linked to these genocidal acts now number large enough to fill a whole basement system at an NYPD precinct. Instead of explaining to us how we got here, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Nick Santora’s script assumes we already know why this ex-Special Forces psycho wears a skull on his chest and possesses a firearm fascination that would petrify even the staunchest Southern NRA member. They know we’re here for the violence, and Alexander (with the help of James Cameron’s former producing partner, Gale Anne Hurd) is more than happy to oblige.

In fact, Alexander’s movie is rather upfront about Castle being a rather boring central character. Taking her cues from the best Batman movies (which are always better defined by their villains than they are the Bat’s actual actions), Alexander provides a foe for this new Punisher that elevates the movie’s horrific leanings even higher. Feeling like a goombah big bad Chris Moltisanti would’ve crafted had Cleaver become a big hit and he been given the keys to the Marvel Kingdom, Billy “The Beaut” Russotti (Dominic West) is an obnoxious gangster caricature. Told by his boys to “take it easy” before he enters meetings with the Don, he’s an archetypical Italian alpha. But ain’t nobody gonna tell Billy to be quiet, and after the Punisher stages an annihilation at his latest sit down, the blowhard stands as the only survivor. Now Billy can do whatever the hell he wants, because New York’s underworld is his for the taking. We all know that’s not going to happen, as the Punisher barely lets him be for five minutes after the mass killing, tossing the profane blabbermouth into a recyclable plant’s glass crusher while the well-dressed thug howls about it scarring his pretty face. Billy will emerge from the wreckage as Jigsaw, sporting a reconstructed visage so horribly disfigured it causes his henchman to vomit.

Dominic West has one iconic character (Jimmy McNulty from The Wire) under his belt, coasting on good looks and a devilish charm while his Baltimore accent faltered and revealed his English roots. Jigsaw transmutes this East Coast impersonation and amplifies it to eleven, as West garbles every line like he’s ordering a charcuterie board at his favorite Brooklyn Italian joint while trying desperately to fit in with the locals. Acting behind layers of impressive makeup effects (that truly are difficult to look at from certain angles), no amount of neon lit scenery can stop him from taking a big bite out of it. Once he recruits his psychotic, cannibalistic brother, Loony Bin Jim (an unhinged Doug Hutchison), the movie almost shifts focus completely to this Guido Frankenstein and his zealot Igor. Like Bill Lustig’s Maniac Cop sequels, steamy New York City is standing in for foggy, gothic sets, as War Zone shares a similar affinity for classic horror, simply updated with aughts crime film aesthetics.

The villains aren’t the only supporting characters vying to steal the show from Frank, as he’s orbited by a colorful array of goofballs. The entire police force is basically supporting his vigilante antics, as one inept doof (Dash Mihok) makes up the city’s “Punisher Task Force”. However, that kid’s certainly committed to catching Castle in the act, though he may ask for an autograph quicker than he whips out the cuffs. The one-man army’s weapon and tech supplier, Micro (Wayne Knight), isn’t so much comedic relief as he’s present to constantly remind Castle that he still has a soul, and should operate utilizing some sort of moral code. Brosnan-era Bond regular Colin Salmon is the Fed on the Punisher’s trail, hunting the killer down after an undercover agent is slain amidst his mafia massacre. That agent’s widow and daughter (Julie Benz and Stephanie Janusauskas) trigger guilt and memories in the shadowy enforcer’s mind of the family he lost to gangland violence following their witnessing of an execution. It’s a whole world Alexander builds around this stoic man of violence that becomes engrossing, and the fact that we only got to visit with them once is a tragedy to lament.

Equally worthy of our grief is the fact that Alexander’s comic book vision is gorgeous – bathed in pinks, reds, yellows, blues and greens. Even a lengthy info dump in a church between Castle and a priest becomes visually intoxicating – the cross behind the pulpit radiating a blinding purple neon as flickering candles flank Frank’s head. When folks (this writer included) complain about the producer-driven “house style” that Marvel would later employ when churning out their never-ending MCU entries, it’s important to remember that, if this movie had been a hit, we may have been gifted with a sting of bonkers, hard-edged alternatives churned out via the company’s Marvel Knights banner (which only has this and ‘11’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to its credit). Steve Gainer’s photography is as evocative as it is dirty-looking; painting every single scene with a keen attention to anti-reality. War Zone never once tries to pass the universe in which it exists as anything but elevated, and the painstakingly flamboyant design emphasizes that at every turn.

The action in War Zone is unremarkable choreography-wise, but cleanly staged and photographed, with a solid sense of geography established in each set piece. Where many directors in the genre go for balletic showiness, Alexander approaches Castle’s violent conquests with ruthless efficiency. Heads are split by hollow point bullets after he decapitates a man with a large blade. It’s the slasher film cousin of so many lo-fi shoot ‘em ups, strained through the panels of that era’s best graphic novels. Alexander was giving us playful, unrestrained craft; putting her own stamp on what could’ve been (and has been) nothing more than routine fare. We need more movies like this, but people flock to its antithesis.

To be fair, pre-release controversy contributed to War Zone being ignored at the BO. Alexander was reported to have been removed as director and the movie taken away from her – a claim that was later denied by both the studio and Alexander herself (though she did not have final cut on the movie). Instead, it seems like creative bickering between Lionsgate and Marvel trapped the filmmaker in the middle, as she was serving two masters that wanted different things from their product. Still, this behind the scenes turmoil doesn’t excuse comic book and action movie fans from refusing to recognize the movie’s greatness when it mattered, opting only to celebrate it in hindsight. This isn’t a “so bad it’s good” title (like so many wrongheaded listicles have claimed since ’08). War Zone is exactly what we want out of a Punisher picture: gleeful violence in a world gone mad, where one man opts to judge the wicked.

Punisher: War Zone is currently available on Blu-ray and to stream.

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