It didn’t last long in cinemas, but 2008’s Punisher: War Zone lived on in the hearts and minds of pop culture fanatics. Maria Lewis dives into its most memorable scene, speaking to comedian Patton Oswalt and the film’s director, Lexi Alexander, who became the first woman to direct a Marvel or DC film.
Patton Oswalt has a crisp memory of seeing Punisher: War Zone at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during the Christmas season a decade ago. Specifically, there’s one scene that blew him away. For anyone who has seen the film, they’ll know the moment. It was something so insane, so unpredictable, so tits-to-the-glass pulpy it’s wild that it occurred in a superhero movie released in 2008. It also encapsulates what it is about the movie that has seen it live on with cult status, even though it was a financial and critical flop at the time.
“Blowing the parkour dude out of the sky with the rocket launcher,” says Oswalt, of the Punisher: War Zone moment that quite literally brought him to his feet. “It was such a blunt, un-subtle squashing out of the trendy, that its artlessness reached true art. Everyone in the theatre – six people – gave it a standing ovation when I first saw it.”
That scene has been tweeted about, gushed over, hyped in message boards, podcasted about, clipped and posted online, not to mention gifed within an inch of its life. What’s even more remarkable, is that in a movie full of ‘WTF did I just see that moments?’ the parkour scene is one that stands out even above, say, vigilante Frank Castle literally punching a man so hard his fist goes through his skull.
For the uninitiated, Punisher: War Zone was the third attempt at bringing Marvel’s bloodthirsty comic book antihero Frank Castle aka The Punisher to the big screen. Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane had both occupied the role previously (1989 and 2004), with Ray Stevenson stepping into the steel-capped boots for the 2008 film. Jon Bernthal would follow after him in Daredevil season two and his own standalone The Punisher series for Netflix. Significantly, Punisher: War Zone became the first Marvel or DC film directed by a woman: Lexi Alexander. An Oscar nominee and still riding the wave of success following her debut feature, Green Street Hooligans, it was Alexander’s background as a professional fighter and later stunt performer that helped birth the scene.
“I really tried to base everything on the comic book, but that scene actually happened to be something I came up with,” she says. “I had to figure out where it would fit in the script. Because I’m the director, I’m allowed to do a director’s draft, but I can’t really rewrite the whole thing.” The parkour idea – or rather, subverting it – was born out Alexander’s fatigue with what she saw as an overused trend.
“At that point, everyone was exhausted with parkour,” she says. “Die Hard had done it, Bond had done it, every movie was doing parkour, and people were getting sick of it: it was a joke! I thought ‘I want to break the joke – what if they’re getting fucking blown up?’”
The scene occurs almost midway through the film, with a trio of acrobatic thugs – Alexander dubbed them “the parkour guys” – established early on in the movie, flipping and twisting and somersaulting their way through scenes when simply walking to the other side of the room would have sufficed. They’re over-the -op and doing the most … which is all part of the set up.
When Stevenson’s Frank Castle is later in pursuit of them, a Rise Against song is playing over the action as they gleefully climb and jump over rooftops, the city skyline illuminated in the background. The troupe is led by the dreadlocked Maginty, played by TJ Storm, a villain plucked directly from the Punisher comics.
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“Look, whenever I can cast a person of colour that’s a great thing for me and Maginty – a black guy with dreadlocks and an Irish accent? – that was a fucking dream come true,” says Alexander. “That confuses everybody and it just so happened I knew someone like that. Once I read all of the comic books that Marvel sent me, I was like ‘this Maginty character has to go in the movie’ and not only that, but I knew an actor who could play him. (TJ) Storm was in acting school with me. He’s good-looking, athletic, a great martial artist – we’ve literally known each other for twenty years – and he looks exactly like the guy in the comics.”
It’s Storm’s shoulders the scene very much rests on, with his triumphant “AHA!” before the money shot – and his reaction to it – the vessel for the audience. After landing on a rooftop, he looks back as ‘the parkour guy’ behind somersaults through mid-air … only to be hit with a rocket launcher, limbs flying apart in a gruesome spray of blood.
The music cuts out, Storm’s Maginty looks around, open-mouthed and shocked, while the camera pans back to Frank Castle. He lowers his weapon, calm and steady reloads another, only to dispatch the remaining members of ‘the parkour guys’ with a headshot and two blows to the kneecaps for Maginty.
“If there’s one original scene that came out of my mind, it’s that one,” says Alexander. “It’s nice that after all this time, it’s everybody’s favourite scene.”