Ray Stevenson straps on the body armor, extra clips, grenades, shotgun, machinegun, pistol, revolver, machete, knife, and pissed-off attitude to don the iconic skull logo for Punisher: War Zone from director Lexi Alexander. The film aims to be a true-to-the-comic adaptation pitting Frank Castle against the iconic villain Jigsaw played by a delightfully over-the-top Dominic West. Lionsgate digs back into their archive of previously released titles to give Punisher: War Zone another crack on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray recycling the same discs from before but now locked, loaded, and armored up with slick new Best Buy Exclusive SteelBook release. If you already had the standard edition, this is the same excellent Dolby Vision transfer with Atmos audio - just in fancier packaging. Warts and all, this is still a very fun darkly hilarious flick. Recommended
"God be with you, Frank."
"Sometimes I would like to get my hands on God."
For years Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) has been waging his rage-fueled one-man war on the criminal underworld of New York as "The Punisher." With the help of his arms supplier Micro (Wayne Knight), Frank has a near-unlimited supply of guns and bullets distributing final absolute justice to the scum of the streets. When his latest raid nearly kills off the last powerful crime family of the city, only Pretty Boy Billy (Dominic West) survives after being ground up in a glass bottle recycler. His face a disfigured patchwork of skin, Billy dons the name "Jigsaw" and with the help of his insane brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), he recruits all of the remaining street gangs of New York to kill The Punisher.
Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, Ray Stevenson, and now we've got Jon Bernthal shooting up Netflix. That's a wild bunch of actors with their own distinct approach toward tackling the character. Until Netflix revamped the character for Daredevil Season 2 and the solo series, the character's cinematic outings have been spotty at best. Dolph's 1989 flick, while dark and decidedly 80s, never really felt like the character and instead fell in line with an average Cannon Group action movie of the era. It didn't help he lacked the signature skull logo. Tomas Jane's 2004 The Punisher was just too "Florida" for its own good. While the actor delivered a great performance, alterations to the character origin, the film's location, and a slow and overly serious tone made for a decent action flick but ultimately a mediocre adaptation.
When I first sat down to watch Punisher: War Zone nearly ten years ago I hated it. I actually turned it off not long after Jigsaw coined his namesake. I had to will myself to finish it because it was, after all, a Punisher movie and I loved the comics. Thankfully it turned out alright but not at all what I expected considering the previous film. Over time it has grown on me and I appreciate that, for its place in the cinematic history of Frank Castle's alter ego, it's probably the closest adaptation in tone and character to the original comics, but it is still deeply flawed. My criticism of it in 2008 remains the same in 2018 - I wonder if it's just too goofy for its own good.
On top of cribbing the Joker's origin from Tim Burton's Batman, Dominic West's Jigsaw can be tiresomely too comical. He looks great, the patchwork skin mask he's left with is terrifying and downright gross, but the gags man, they kill it. I loved his recruitment montages in front of a projection of the American flag, that felt right out of the comics, but everything else he did felt like stereotype mafia mook junk run amok. When the main villain and his henchmen are all fighting for time to get in their yuks and goofs it's hard to take them seriously as a real threat. I was relieved and laughed my head off when The Punisher blew up the parkour gang mid-flip as anytime they appeared on screen I just wanted to close my eyes and wish it wasn't happening.
Thankfully Ray Stevenson's take on the character is spot on. He may struggle a little bit with the one-liners that were pulled right from the comic books, but he's at least a scary and physically imposing presence. Much closer to the iconic Tim Bradstreet cover art that adorned each and every issue of the series that was released at that time. That first glory shot of him standing on the lavish dining room table with a lit road flare in one hand and a really big knife in the other is just awesome. That is a true "Punisher" moment captured on screen. In keeping with the comics, I love how he can freely wander around New York fully armed with a tactical vest taking the concept of "open carry" to a delightful extreme. On top of that, the head exploding, bone-crunching, and decapitating gore is pitch-perfect. It's just too bad the rest of the flick has some clear and obvious shortcomings.
Punisher: War Zone is a satisfying outing but very inconsistent. For every one thing that's done right, another is done wrong or haphazardly handled. Colin Salmon's Fed Paul Budiansky who starts out hating and hunting the Punisher only to switch gears randomly and help him was a bit of a left-field arc that could have been scrapped altogether. Wayne Knight made a fine Micro but his handful of scenes felt wasted for the character while Julie Benz's grieving widow of one of Frank's accidental innocent victims never really pulls together. At this point, I guess you could say that I have a love/hate relationship with Punisher: War Zone. I think I like it better than 2004's The Punisher but not by much and then for different reasons. If The Punisher wasn't enough like the comic's established mythos and lore, then Punisher: War Zone took the notion of a comic book on film to a goofy extreme.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Punisher: War Zone takes aim at 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the second time with a new two-disc plus digital Best Buy Exclusive SteelBook. Outside of the packaging, this is the exact same set as before. Both discs get their own trays in the SteelBook without being stacked. As has been the case with Lionsgate's latest SteelBooks, there is a plastic slipcover - this time in blood red adding a dynamic and slick overlay to the busy artwork underneath. To clarify for the main featured image at the top - no a figure does not come with this release. I added that for scale and awesomeness. The included digital copy unlocks 4k on either iTunes or VUDU, but is not Movies Anywhere Compatible.
Upscaled from a 2K DI, Punisher: War Zone actually enjoys a notable bit of refinement and clarity with this 2160p 2.35:1 transfer with HDR10 and Dolby Vision. If you've seen the film, you're already well aware that this is a heavily stylized-looking picture. Exaggerated color saturation, dynamic lighting, all of these elements can have an effect on the image of the film and they change from shot to shot. Sometimes there's a heavy yellow saturation. Sometimes it's green, sometimes blue. The point is it's not an image one should make the effort to compare to other 4K releases and instead keep the focus to the previous Blu-ray release. On that note, this new 4K release manages all of the varying elements from color saturation to details to black levels and contrast much better with only a couple of hangups that keep this from being a reference disc.
As more films from the early/mid-2000s make their way to 4K I'd come to accept that details wise there's just not going to be much of an improvement in detail levels and clarity. The same is true here for Punisher: War Zone only the added resolution does help manage the image's stylings a bit better. Film grain is retained and maintains a natural film-like look while also helping highlight fine details that weren't quite readily apparent before. Shots with single-color saturation like the opening credits looked much more refined and clear. Doing some disc-to-disc comparisons with the Blu-ray I would say that the clarity and details improvements are most notable in close-up shots. Jigsaw's face is especially gory as you can see the variations in the types of skin supposedly used to rebuild his face. Costuming also enjoys a little more details, the different types of suits the mob bosses wear at the opening party scene is more apparent with Billy's velvet coat getting a nicer fuzzy sheen than the 1080p presentation.
As far as the Dolby Vision rolls, this is pretty good-looking stuff. The film already enjoyed heightened exaggerated colors so accuracy to "normal" isn't really a grading perspective. On that point, the Dolby Vision HDR does offer up some better shading to the color schemes. The red of that road flare in the opening massacre sequence is particularly impressive. Jigsaw's recruitment montage where each shot gets a different color also adds some nice shading separation as well. Flesh tones are appropriately healthy. Black levels are - for the most part - nicely inky. However, there are more than a few heavily stylized shots where the blacks were already thick on Blu-ray they now drift into crush territory. The scene with Frank at his family's grave is a notable shot where his black costume is just a hunk of solid black mass with his pale face resting in the middle of the void. More moments like this pepper throughout the rest of the film. While they're not major issues, they stand out. As a whole, this 4K UHD release is a clear upgrade over the previous Blu-ray, but probably not quite demo-worthy enough to entice most folks into an upgrade.
The fun trick with the audio mix for Punisher: War Zone is the simple fact that the Blu-ray already came with an aggressive and impressive DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio track. So it's on that note that I'll just out front say that the Dolby Atmos mix doesn't really offer a huge auditory upgrade. The extra channel spacing smooths things out a bit, there is some decent object focused directional effects employed -- the rocket blowing up the parkour gang member is a great effect -- but the mix is still just a cacophony of loud and aggressive sound elements smashing through your speakers without a lot of care or nuance.
Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any issues from the constant gunfire and explosion effects or the film's imposing score. When it counts most there is some terrific surround activity and the mix knows when to take a break for quiet conversations. One of my favorite moments is the glass recycler and the circular effect of the sounds of glass breaking and the howling screams of pain as Dominic West is ground up. The final gunfight in the Bradstreet Hotel enjoys some great directional activity as well. The vertical channels don't really do a whole lot other than help to space things out a bit better but the mix is still aggressively loud all around. Side by side there's not a whole lot to distinguish the Atmos mix from the original DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. This Atmos mix is good stuff that works out your sound system nicely but it's not reason enough to encourage an upgrade.
All of the previous bonus features for Punisher: War Zone have been ported over and are included on the actual 4K UHD disc without having to swap back to the original Blu-ray. You can read a breakdown of these bonus features HERE.
Punisher: War Zone certainly isn't the best comic book movie ever made, but it had good intentions. Lexi Alexander hit on some key elements of the comics that were missing in past adaptations and brought them to life. The Punisher comics have always had a pretty dark sense of humor but this film takes that humor to almost goofy levels. Ray Stevenson is still a badass Punisher and I'd have loved to see him get another crack at the character. Maybe with Marvel's new love of the Multiverse, we can get a Punisher-verse of Murder and have Dolph, Thomas, Ray, and Jon all mowing down the worst-of-the-worst street scum of the MCU together? I'd pay to see that movie! Until Marvel's K.E.V.I.N. comes calling for my screenplay(!), Lionsgate's slick new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray SteelBook will have to hold over Frank Castle fans. The two discs are the same from 2018, but the SteelBook packaging, especially that blood-red slipcover makes for a pretty damned attractive piece for any collector's shelf! Recommended