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Director Lexi Alexander and star Ray Stevenson on the set of Punisher: War Zone.

Ray Stevenson is the third actor to play the Punisher in a feature film, and whether or not he is embraced by fans more than Dolph Lundgren or Thomas Jane were remains to be seen.

However, Stevenson does seem to pass an initial first test for Punisher: War Zone -- which opens on Friday -- better than his predecessors: He looks more like the character.

"I can't think of anyone who looks more like a Tim Bradstreet cover than Ray," says producer Gale Anne Hurd, who also produced 2004's film that starrred Jane.

Being closer to the comics was a priority for Hurd and director Lexi Alexander with this incarnation of the Punisher. War Zone is a reboot for the character, much the way The Incredible Hulk followed Hulk.

The new film is set in New York, an origin flashed back to is derived from the comics, the villain is longtime comics nemesis Jigsaw and supporting characters include Microchip and Detective Soap.

Enter Stevenson, who is best known for playing Titus Pullo in the HBO television series Rome. While he jokes was too busy "fighting in the streets" in England as a kid to read comic books, he quickly embraced the character and its "uber-violence."

"You don't want to be Frank Castle, but you're glad he's there," Stevenson says, "And you can't wait to see what he does next.

"There is a kind of nihilism to his actions. He doesn't set himself up as a protector of the innocent, he's a punisher of the corrupt. That's a very clear line to draw. He knows he can't right the world. He knows he can only do this one bit. But at least, for him, it's the one bit he can do."

Alexander says Stevenson brought a sense of humanity to the character.

"There is gravitas and a sense of sorrow to his task, and along with the action there is a heart, one that's been beaten down but is still there," Alexander says.

"He hasn't got super powers or lightning bolts shooting out his eyeballs or anything like that," Stevenson says. "He uses skills he's learned to get his job done. I think people also identify with his personal story as a man who suffered a tremendous tragedy in his life and decided on a route of vendetta, a vigilante attitude that says that once people cross a certain line, they're beyond redemption."

Those "skills" required months of weaopns and fighting training for Stevenson, who had no previous fighting experience. He trained with stunt coordinator Pat Johnson, a 67-year-old who worked with Bruce Lee on Enter the Dragon in 1972.

Johnson shares a martial arts background with director Alexander and worked with her on her previous films. "He, like Lexi, is a warrior," Stevenson says.

Johnson and Stevenson trained five hours a day, six days a week to prepare for the shooting, which frequently included 12-hour days of nothing but stunts and hand-to-hand combat.

"Ray actually lived at my home in California, so that I could be sure that he was going to be out by five o'clock in the morning to start training at 5:30 a.m.," Johnson says.

"I have never seen anyone work as hard as Ray Stevenson did," Hurd says.

Beyond fitness and fighting, Stevenson worked with military advisor Jon Barton, who taught him how to handle and fire a vast array of weapons, as well as how to move like a man with military training.

"Part of what makes a military man stand out is his ability to move through buildings and open areas. It's very distinct, and it takes practice," Barton says. "We did a lot of work with weapons: transitioning from a rifle to a pistol, using two pistols, using two pistols and a rifle, grenade launchers and rocket launchers.

"After six weeks, we started doing what we call force-on-force, which is where I had Ray engage my fellow employees in mock battle sequences where he would be the Punisher and he would have to kill everybody, and they had to try to kill him. That was really fun because it gave him a chance to be shot at."

Stevenson says the film doesn't take a "my gun is bigger than your gun" mentality, nor is War Zone a "green-screen" movie laden with computer-generated action. "We'd like to reflect the honesty of that training," he says.

Will the work pay off? War Zone faces a steep climb at the holiday box office, and the film has had its share of controversy. Unsubstantiated reports -- Alexander being removed from the film in post-production and even an attempt for a PG-13 rating -- have stymied buzz in recent months.

And The Punisher's track record in live-action hasn't been the greatest. The Lundgren movie never even made it to theaters in 1989, a live-action television pilot never materialized for Fox in 1997 and the 2004 film became the first Marvel theatrical release not to open No. 1.

Stevenson, however, is hopeful that War Zone can propel the character into an ongoing franchise.

"There's a whole lot of world for Frank to be in," he says.

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