Third time seems to be the charm for the skull-emblazoned Marvel Comics vigilante, who punishes his way across the screen in a gory gas of squishy violence with Punisher: War Zone. Rarely have moviegoers seen such a two-fisted wrecking ball of vengeance such as the one realized here by Ray Stevenson. Built like a 'fridge, with fists that go through faces and an arsenal to blow off any crook's head that comes near, this Punisher couldn't be more different than the Tom Jane or Dolph Lundgren incarnations that came before. Much of the same can be said of the movie, which takes ultra violence to a new level, injecting a bit of the black humor of the Garth Ennis Max series and mixing it with the visceral abandon of Stallone's fourth Rambo film. Of course, not everything is rosy underneath the blood-red veil of this violent escapade. For any missteps the film does make, War Zone more than makes up for it by taking no prisoners and being what it is: an excessive blast of action where brawn wins over brains and sober morality messages are left for other, weightier comic book properties.
Just as in the Incredible Hulk reboot, this kick-start wastes no time in laying out origins. The story begins with a gangster meeting gone horribly wrong, as the vigilante known as The Punisher single-handedly takes out a Mafioso boss along with his corrupt dinner guests. Fleeing the scene is Billy Russoti (300's Dominic West), a recent ex-con and connected mobster who's cooking up a deal to bring biological weapons into the country. Inevitably, The Punisher tracks him to his hideout and opens a can of hurt on him and his men, fatally wounding an undercover FBI agent in the process. As Frank Castle, the Kevlar-suited protector of the innocent, flees the scene, Russoti is left forever scarred, paving the way for him to become the ultra-villain Jigsaw. Now, burdened with remorse, The Punisher vows to protect the family of the slain agent, even if it means teaming up with the local law enforcement's "Punisher Task Force" to do so. With the help of his weapons man Microchip (Wayne Knight), Castle takes on Jigsaw and his psychotic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) in a fight to the death, where only the guilty will be punished.
Loaded with double-barreled mayhem, War Zone is a coup de grace of cartoonish violence and knowingly over-the-top performances. In particular, West excels as the nightmarish goomba Jigsaw, injecting each scene with a gleeful swagger that's deliciously campy for those looking for a throwback to dastardly villains of old. In fact, much of the film walks the fine line of deliberate, straight-faced preposterousness. What helps is the style of the picture; director Lexi Alexander has given the Big Apple a heightened reality not only with the movie's exaggerated traumas, but with the color palette as well. Playing like an aesthetic toss-up between Blade 2 and a bit of Dick Tracy, Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer transform the dark crevices of a subway stop into a green-hued hideout, with another stellar sequence occurring in a church filled with a sea of multicolored candles. The mix of garish violence and artistic ambition makes for a fascinating combination, one that's altogether unexpected in an adaptation of such a straight-ahead action hero.
Furthermore, the choice of director is inherently interesting given the film's theatrical cut. One would think that Julie Benz would have been given a meatier role under the watchful eye of a female at the helm. By the time her character is kidnapped at the end, astute viewers might wonder if her original role had been nabbed as well. Also on the minus side, War Zone is hobbled by the questionable amount of jarring metal tunes, in addition to a needless comic relief in the case of the Det. Soup character. Played with a confusingly imbecilic nature by Dash Mihok, the performance and character are entirely out of place, even in such a ludicrous film as this. Still, this slight misstep is nothing compared to the embarrassing opera-singing fat guy funnyman sidekick from Jonathan Hensleigh's 2004 outing, so maybe audiences should feel lucky this time around. In the end, War Zone will delight those who have been yearning for The Punisher to deliver in such a gory gas as this. Sure, it's not a stripped-down Death Wish for the serious-minded adult crowd, but that's not what every comic book movie needs to be in the post-Dark Knight, pre-Watchmen movie world. For once, fans are not severely punished by a Punisher flick; that in and of itself says a whole lot about this future guilty pleasure. leave a comment --Jeremy Wheeler