Punisher: War Zone has garnered an energetic cult fandom in the decade since it was made, and it’s a rare example of a popcorn movie that calls out its own tropes. When first released, it was neither heavily promoted nor widely seen. I saw it with a friend in a nearly empty theater, and afterward we stumbled out in the late December cold with giddy grins and rubbery legs, stunned and amazed.
War Zone pushes the grim, ultraconservative vigilante character into cartoonish territory. The nominal plot follows the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) vengefully butchering every mobster in town, before finally battling crime lord Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his gang. The film’s ludicrous violence underscores the absurdity of superhero vigilantism. The film opens with Punisher attacking a Godfather-style meeting and beheading an elderly mob boss — then snapping his wife’s neck. The absurdity only increases; in the best-known sequence, Punisher shoots a parkouring smuggler out of mid-air with a rocket launcher. These action sequences are technically masterful in and of themselves, but also undercut through their exaggeration self-aggrandizing super-man action archetypes. The cinematography, a palette of neon greens and reds swathed in shadow, recalls another unstable loner, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) of Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976).
In contrast to the kinetic action, Stevenson’s Punisher is taciturn to the point of camp. No wry one-liners soften his character. Even in his nominal attempts to rescue the widow and daughter of an undercover cop (whom Punisher accidentally killed), Punisher is explosive and brutish. The extreme violence emphasizes the horrific politics of every superhero film: the very genre idealizes populist (literal) strongmen whose extralegal violence is justified by their purported benevolence. Alexander even links Punisher to the Church in the final scene, cheekily suggesting the iconic lineage to patriarchal power to forgive or to “punish.”
However, the film’s most sardonic and cutting moment of parody comes when Jigsaw recruits black, Latin, Asian, and Irish gang members with a Patton-style inspirational speech, standing in front of an American flag. The double commentary reminds us of the systemic inequality that both stereotypes men of color as murderous thugs and recruits those same men as cannon fodder for state-sponsored violence.
Will Dodson, PhD, is the Ashby and Strong Residential College Coordinator Adjunct Assistant Professor of Media Studies at UNC Greensboro. He teaches courses on rhetoric, media studies, and literature, with a focus on exploitation and alternative cinema and literature. He is co-editor with David A. Cook of The Anthem Series on Exploitation and Industry in World Cinema.