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There are very few films where – in one scene – the hero punches through a goon’s head and then turns around and blows another goon’s face off. Punisher: War Zone is one of those films. Put together a list of the most violent films ever made and you’ll probably see it up there alongside the 2008 Rambo film and the recent Indonesian release The Night Comes For Us. It’s a bold, brutal, underappreciated action movie and it paved the way for the more violent Marvel movies over the next decade.
The Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is waging a one-man war against the mob. After killing an ageing mob dealer he tracks down another mob boss and puts him into a glass crusher. This Machiavellian mobster survives and becomes the fleshy patchwork villain Jigsaw (Dominic West). The Punisher – having accidentally killed an FBI agent during his raid – retires but Jigsaw brings him back in after threatening the agent’s family.
The plot of Punisher: War Zone is, to put it kindly, pretty basic. I get the feeling that director Lexi Alexander – herself a former stuntwoman and world champion kickboxer – knew this and put all her effort into making the kind of action movie she wanted to make. All an action movie needs is a good hook and a family in danger is often enough for any action fan worth their salt. Next come the blood squibs, weapons and legions of stunt people.
Selling the hit is as important as delivering it. If a punch or a bullet doesn’t look like it hurts than it ain’t worth jack. You can apply all the torn flesh and fake blood you want but if the stunt person or actor can’t react appropriately or exaggeratedly then there’s no point. Alexander knew this too and although her budget might not have allowed her to hire the best she got the best she could and put them through their paces in the dimly lit alleys and abandoned hotels of New York.
Ray Stevenson doesn’t have any lines for the first twenty minutes of the film. Which is really the perfect way to introduce an action hero. Actions speak louder than words especially when the action is slicing off a mafioso’s head. Dominic West chews the scenery to mush as Jigsaw as does Doug Hutchinson as his brother Loony Bin Jim. Wayne Knight pops up too if anyone remembers him from the 1990s. It’s cast full of character actors doing what character actors do best just with extra blood.
People are shot, stabbed, decapitated, impaled, burnt and exploded in Punisher: War Zone. The Punisher does things with a knife in the first five minutes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hong Kong action movie. A parkour criminal is blown to bits in mid-air. Another is thrown onto a very pointy fence. It’s 80s action violence taken to its logical extreme. And it’s glorious. But we wouldn’t have any of it without the determination and commitment Lexi Alexander showed in her drive to get the film made.
It’s hard out there for women directors. So far Alexander has been the first and only woman to direct a Marvel movie. Kathryn Bigelow is one of only five women ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. She is also the only female winner of the award in 2009 for her film The Hurt Locker released the same year Alexander was toiling on Punisher: War Zone. Bigelow directed the action classic Point Break proving that not only could women stage elaborate, explosive sequences but that they could do it as well as if not better than their male counterparts.
To read about Lexi Alexander’s struggles on Punisher: War Zone is to remember the biblical tale of David & Goliath. Alexander faced a great deal of opposition to many of her choices. Her casting of Dominic West, her inability to take a sick day and, most cruelly, the fact she didn’t get final cut on the film. Still Alexander said: “It came at a price, I would say, but I made the film I wanted on the screen.” It goes to show that hard work pays off even if that work can take a professional toll.
Since Punisher: War Zone Alexander hasn’t made another studio film though her work in the comic book genre hasn’t stopped. She has directed episodes of Arrow and Supergirl as well as episodes of the TV adaptations of Taken and Limitless. Her pet project Crossface, a film about late wrestler Chris Benoit and his double murder-suicide of his family has lingered in development hell for two years. But even if Alexander never makes another film the stylish and bloody legacy of Punisher: War Zone will remain concrete.
It’s rare that there’s ever more than three colours onscreen in Punisher: War Zone. Apparently this was because Alexander and her cinematographer Steve Gainer were sent cheap copies of Punisher comics with only three colours per panel. Still this minimalism only adds to the movie. The opening scene is lit only by a red flare. The Punisher’s hideout is blue-black with lamps battling the darkness. A brief church scene glitters with multicoloured lights as if someone scattered jewels across the frame. It is a beautiful film in its own way especially when contrasted with all the gory kills.
It’s a shame that Alexander hasn’t made another action film because she clearly has the skills and know-how to do it. Punisher: War Zone came along at the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe like your drunk, highly trained veteran uncle to a baby shower. Marvel movies were only beginning to find their singular studio identity and there was no place for the hyper-violence that’s only now beginning to creep back in with Deadpool and Logan. But that doesn’t mean that people didn’t take notice.
Although the recent Punisher Netflix series settled for a more realistic tone the grit was still there from 2008. Scott Derrickson – the director of Doctor Strange and Alexander’s friend – cites the movie as an influence. Comedian Patton Oswalt stated the entire look of Marvel’s Netflix shows comes from Punisher: War Zone. He’s not wrong. The New York of the late Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and still running Jessica Jones is a grimy, gritty place. Daredevil and obviously Netflix’s Punisher have the most in common with War Zone and they show how long its legacy has lasted. Still for all his grit Ray Stevenson’s titular hero comes in second to the real hero of the film. Lexi Alexander weathered the storm and I’m just waiting until she throws us into a hurricane of her own design.