Going to War: The Punisher: War Journal (2008)

Third times the charm!  While I enjoyed the second shot at the Punisher starring Thomas Jane, it appears a lot of people did not agree.  The Punisher is one of those tough characters.  He is brutally violent and that is where his entertainment comes from…how far will he go to take out the underworld?  So, for the next attempt at the Punisher, much like the Hulk, they tossed aside the prior film.  They dumped Director Jonathan Hensleigh and lead Thomas Jane.  They replaced them with Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) and the new Punisher Ray Stevenson (Rome).

Like the Jane version, they draw from a variety of eras of the Punisher.  While the plot feels very Garth Ennis, the choice of villain is a character he never used.  That being the Len Wein/Ross Andru creation Jigsaw (Dominic West, 300 and the Wire).  But they do borrower characters he brought to the series, like the Punisher Task Force-Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Day After Tomorrow) and Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon, Resident Evil & Strikeback).

The film opens with Punisher playing with some adorable kittens…just kidding.






No, we see a bunch of mobster types meeting at a nice looking mansion.  Billy (West) steps out of a limo and check himself in the mirror…he is a pretty boy who wants to climb higher in the mob, but he is given no respect by the local “Godfather”.  As everyone sits down for dinner, the lights go out.  Suddenly a flare is lit and the Punisher runs across the table and chops off the “godfather’s” head.  And then the carnage starts… the Punisher takes out the entire house of mobsters, while Detective Soap and his partner are stumbling into the yard…his partner comes across the Punisher…Castle puts his hands over his head and turns around.  The officer gives Frank the keys his car.

Frank arrives at Billy’s lair (an old factory).    Billy is using some delivery men who  practice parkour.  After they leave, the Punisher slips in undetected (mainly because he kills the guys who would detect him).  One of Billy’s men walks out of the office to find himself face to face with Castle, startled (the Punisher gets startled?) Frank pulls the trigger-except, he doesn’t realize it..but he shot an undercover agent.  After a shootout, Billy falls into a glass crusher (for recycling)…Frank turns it on to end Billy’s life.  The FBI rush in.  Frank goes to grab the henchman’s gun and sees the wire…he realizes he shot a good guy dead.

Frank goes back to his base, clearly upset and guilt ridden.    Meanwhile, it turns out, Billy is alive.

At the downed agent’s funeral, Frank watches from a distance.  Agent Miller (Larry Day) tells Budiansky that Frank is just not a top priority for them…but Budiansky is determined and tells the agent’s wife Angela (Julie Benz) he will get Castle.  Frank visits his wife and childrens’ graves falling apart a bit as he is plagues by the moment they all were killed.  Budiansky shows up at the precinct to get to work, only to find that the Punisher Taske Force is one guy.  Martin Soap.  Soap is the master of exposition and gets us from Frank’s “origin” to the current scene in about three minutes…giving the viewer everything they need to know.

Meanwhile, Frank puts together a bag of money, and seems ready to pack up…he is interrupted by his armorer Micro (Wayne Knight).  Micro tries to convince Frank to move on, not let the death eat him.  It’s a war and sometimes good guys die.  In the meantime, Billy has hired a underground plastic surgeon to fix him up.  It doesn’t go as well as hoped.  Billy’s face is now a mish-mash of stitches and stretched skin.  Billy re-Christens himself Jigsaw and plans to kill Frank Castle-after getting his brother Looney Bin Jim.  Except, Jigsaw hates when people call his brother that.  His name is James.

Turns out, James is definitely a bit off.  He is in a drugged stupor (I cannot help but suspect this is nod to Hutchison’s fate in the Green Mile) as an orderly goes to feed him…the orderly mocks James and eats his apple sauce.  There is a knock at the door and the order opens it, as he hears the voice of the doctor, but it goes downhill, as Jigsaw is with his two remaining henchmen.  They free James, who was faking his stupor.  He attacks the orderly and declares he wants his apple sauce.  It turns out LBJ is an apt name as he literally rips the orderly apart and eats him.  Really.

Frank sneaks up to the agent’s house…only for the Punisher to find the Agent Donetelli’s daughter Grace is sitting on the porch drawing.  She tells Frank he is in her light…so, in a very fatherly fashion, he stoops down and gives her his flashlight-for the next time a person gets in her light.  Angela shows up with a gun…she is ready to shoot Frank, who is looking like he is ready to die…he even helps her aim the gun to kill.  But she is stopped by her daughter and Frank slips away.

Jigsaw is starting meeting with gangs to set up a plan to increase his pocketbook and take out the Punisher.  Frank visits Micro and his aged mother.  He is there to tell Micro he gives up…but Micro convinces him to be ready to protect the Donetelli family.  Meanwhile, Soap and Budiansky are watching for Frank, who is tracking down them parkour guys.  They reveal to  Frank that Jigsaw and his gang have gone after Angela and her daughter.  On his way, he attracts the attention of Budiansky and Soap.  Castle and Budiansky engage in fisticuffs.  Frank tries to reason with Budiansky after realizing he is FBI.  Jigsaw and his boys are tearing up the house looking for the money they believe Agent Donetelli stole from them.

Budiansky has Soap send some officers to Angela’s house, who are promptly dispatched by LBJ and another henchman.  When there is no response, Budiansky has Soap take them to Angela’s home (with the Punisher in tow).  Budiansky enters, only to find Angela and her daughter held at gunpoint.  The Punisher slips in and saves Angela and her daughter, taking them to his hideout.  He lets Grace explore a trunk of belongings from his previous life.

Jigsaw is caught, but sets up a deal to get himself set free by the FBI.  Frank goes out to meet Micro-only to find Micro gone and a horrific sign that it was not willingly.  While he is there, Jigsaw and LBJ kidnap Angela and Grace.  They then invite hundreds of gang members to give Frank a rough time.  Before going to the hotel, Frank pays a visit to a friend-a priest.  The Priest offers the verse regarding how that the measure by which we judge will be applied to ourselves.  Budiansky sits beside Frank, and they discuss how much our justice system sucks.

Frank enters the Hotel armed to the teeth and takes out the gang members floor by floor until he reaches Jigsaw’s penthouse, where he finds Angela, Grace and Micro.    Jigsaw gives him the choice of saving Angela and Grace or Micro.  He and Micro both know how this must play out…unfortunately for Micro.  After beating Jigsaw and LBJ, Frank steps out to find Angela, Grace, Soap and Budiansky.  Angela tells Frank that her husband had argued with her that Castle really was one of the good guys.

I won’t lie…this is about as good of a Punisher movie as you will get.  It is true to character, completely violent with absurd and over the top villains.  Jigsaw gives a huge speech to recruit the gang members in front of screen with a giant American flag projected on it.  Hutchison is terrific in the role of Looney Bin Jim…he is uncomfortably menacing…not quite Heath Ledger’s Joker-but scary all the same.  It is a shame Hutchison will be remembered more as the “Old Guy who Married a Teenage Girl”.  And you cannot get more over the top in a movie like this than cannibalism.  Well, the Punisher does kill 81 people.

Dominic West is no slouch either.  He plays Jigsaw and a man gone over the edge, flamboyant in his new-found skin.  West brings an appropriate amount of the absurd to the film.  Wayne Knight, on the other hand, draws it back.  Instead of going for broad humor, he plays Micro as a dedicated soldier trying to provide backup.  I am always sympathetic to Julie Benz, though her accent seems to slip at times.  And hey, what’s not to like about Colin Salmon?  Dash Mihok makes a terific Martin Soap…ineffectual and bumbling, but ultimately in Frank’s corner.

And Stevenson?  Wow.  He looks like Frank walked out of the comics.  He is really imposing, and able to make Frank work in the quieter moments.

The movie works really quite well.  Smartly, they put Frank in the role of protecting a family, and it is the interactions with Grace that humanize him.  As villains go, they played it smart.  In some comics, relateable villians, or at least villains who see themselves as the heroes are great.  But for the Punisher?  You need remarkably un-sympathetic villains.  At no point can you look at Jigsaw and his men as misunderstood.  They are just terrible people and you want Frank to do his job and end them.

There are nice little touches, such as the The Bradstreet Hotel-named for cover artist Tim Bradstreet.  The visuals are really nice, with great use of the landscape, and the colors are very vibrant.

The film ends with Frank standing at the top of a set of stairs, behind him a neon cross that says Jesus Saves…the J,E,U & S all flicker out to just leave the word Saves and the screen goes black except for the neon “Saves”.  I am not really sure what the director is trying to do with the image.  But it looks kind of nifty.
It appears that Marvel has no plans for a sequel.  It is a hard character to do right…Marvel was apparently discussing a TV series, but to be blunt?  What a terrible idea.  Unless you put it on HBO, Starz or Showtime?  There is no way it would be unrecognizable.  I would have been happy with a sequel starring Jane…and I would be happy with a sequel starring Stevenson…but since it looks like that is unlikely… here is a basket of Dirty Laundry:

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