New review: ‘Punisher: War Zone’

Punisher: War Zone (dir: Lexi Alexander)

Can you believe that Punisher: War Zone is the third attempt to turn Marvel Comics’ vigilante commando into a big screen franchise? Can it be so hard to make a decent film out of a character born of the pulp fiction of The Executioner paperback originals and the outlaw justice of the Dirty Harry and Death Wish movies? Based on the evidence at hand, it is apparently beyond the abilities of the filmmakers gathered here.

Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, aka The Punisher
Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, aka The Punisher

To give credit where it is due, Ray Stevenson (the plebian soldier Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome) is the closest the movies have come to capturing the urban soldier aesthetic from the comic book. Thankfully we don’t have to sit through a tedious origin story and that obligatory burst of bloodlust vengeance that inevitably follows. At the start of the film, Frank Castle, the former Special Forces soldier turned urban avenger in a black military duds adorned with a skull, is already set in his ways. Frank doesn’t speak a line for the first half hour, letting his armory do the talking as he dispatches an entire mob family in their own mansion fortress. At first he’s the predator in the dark, using his bare hands and hunting knives to make the killings personal, but once the lights come on and the soldiers pour in, he forgoes the personal touch and falls back on automatic weapons. Stevenson is a stocky guy, less a superhero than a military specialist with Special Forces training and a mercenary callousness when it comes to killing. He’s big and strong and direct, and his action scenes use that presence to make him seem indomitable. Only brief flashbacks remind us that he once had a family killed by organized crime (ah, motivation!).

Dominic West chews on a rubbery Italian-American accent as Billy “The Beauty” Russoti, a preening ape in a suit with a short temper and a sadistic edge and the family’s wild card of a mob lieutenant. Billy escapes the initial assault and starts making plans to rebuild the family business with himself at the head when Frank drops him into a glass grinder, flipping the switch to a painful demise with the impassive callousness that was already a cliche in the seventies boom of B-movie vigilantes. In classic comic book fashion, Billy is fished out of the ground glass, more or less intact but gorily disfigured and reborn as a flamboyant comic book villain with a patchwork face. “Call me Jigsaw,” he growls as he takes his place as a wannabe in the rogues gallery of psychopathic supervillains. For a sidekick, he frees his sociopath of a brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) from a high-security asylum and the celebrate the reunion by letting Jim feed on his doctor like a hyena tearing into a carcass. Hutchison’s casting is the easiest kind of shorthand for bat-shit crazy (you may remember him as the prison guard in The Green Mile who approached his job as if he were a boy looking for flies to pull the wings off of) and director Lexi Alexander doesn’t even try to reign in his maniacal bug-eyed smiles or his annoying over-enunciation of every line. Hutchison and West overplay their roles like junior league Jokers in a B-movie “Batman” knock-off.

The rest is a direct-to-DVD story with a big budget and a B-plus cast. Frank broods over the killing of an undercover agent while the bad guys target the dead agent’s widow (Julie Benz) and child. The FBI sends a dogged agent (Colin Salmon in humorless badass mode) to find Frank. Wayne Knight plays Frank’s personal gun shopper and Dash Mihok is a gee-whiz cop running the Punisher task force. His subterranean hideout in the subway tunnels (sublet from Lex Luthor, one assumes) turns out not to be so secret once everyone starts looking for him and wanders right in (without a map even).

The dialogue verges on camp (when it’s not simply trite and terrible) and Alexander punctuates the bloodletting with an unusually high number of exploding heads and exploding bodies, not that Frank really needs explosives to make a point. In a pinch, he’ll punch a guy’s face in. All the way to the back of the skull.

It’s hard to say if there’s more spatter on the screen or in the soundtrack, where every blow and bullet is punctuated by a wet splat.

The film can’t decide if it’s a gruesomely violent urban-mercenary fantasy laced with failed attempts at dark humor or a B-movie “Batman” with a psychotic supervillain and painful patter right out of a bad comic book. But there is no stylistic thrill to this blunt object of a callous action film. It’s content to bludgeon the audience into numb resignation.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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