Dir: Lexi Alexander. US. 2008. 103 mins.
A blithely depraved shoot-'em-up in which its glum protagonist lays waste to a vast criminal underworld, Punisher: War Zone recalls low-budget action movies of the 1980s in which dialogue was only something to fill three to five minutes between set pieces. Steeped in as much over-the-top brutality and gore as comedy, this artless revenge tale would seem to have a limited fan base and shelf life.
Jonathan Hensleigh helped prove the viability of even the bottom tier of the Marvel Comics catalogue in 1994 when The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane in the vigilante title role and John Travolta as the villain, grossed just under $34m domestically. Without stars or much of a sense of scope, this version's commercial yield should be lower, though its base-level carnage and mayhem could translate well for international action junkies.
Neither a sequel nor origin story, Punisher: War Zone, much like this summer's The Incredible Hulk, simply takes as its point of focus a different part of the comic book narrative. Set almost entirely at night, the film unfolds five years after former Navy S.E.A.L. and anti-hero Frank Castle (Stevenson) has launched a one-man war on the criminals who killed his family. A legend to both sides of the law, Frank operates with the tacit approval of the New York City police, who have a token task force assigned to his capture but otherwise don't seem very interested in stopping him.
After junior-level mob boss Billy Russoti (West) is left horribly facially scarred by Castle, he adopts the nickname Jigsaw and sets out for vengeance, enlisting the assistance of his brother Jim (Hutchison), whom he frees from a mental institution. When Jigsaw helps a rival gang smuggle a biological weapon into New York, federal anti-terror authorities step up the pressure to catch Frank, thinking he can lead them to Jigsaw. Predictably, many bodies hit the floor.
While The Punisher surprisingly went out of its way to temper its bloodlust with a pinch of reality, no such desire for nuance is on display in Punisher: War Zone, which unleashes depravity galore. In the first 10 minutes, an old lady's neck has been snapped, a chair leg rammed into someone's eye, and Frank has readjusted his own broken nose with a pencil; by film's end, heads have been blown off and faces literally punched in.
As a showcase for this sort of splatter-effects excess, the movie could possibly briefly enthral young male action junkies, but it's hard to see it working anywhere else. The script is lazy, and the ridiculous violence doesn't match scenes that play on Frank's guilt over having accidentally killed an undercover agent, for example. Also, the final act is predicated on federal authorities giving the Russoti brothers money, unconditional freedom, and information to help settle their vendetta with Frank, which makes little sense.
To cap it all, there's no idea that Frank is physically vulnerable, twirling around as he does in abulletproof vest and overwhelming his opponents via simple firepower. This conspires to make thefilm feel like an elongated computer simulation videogame in which the protagonist is granted unlimited lives.
Performance-wise, Stevenson glowers in a fashion one could deem appropriate, but West adopts an exaggerated Mafioso accent that seems based on having seen several episodes of The Sopranos. As 'Loony Bin Jim,' Hutchison chews the scenery so madly and gleefully that it elicits laughs. And even if that wasn't always the original intent, at least the viewer can appreciate the diversion.
Valhalla Motion Pictures
MHF Zweite Academy Film
SGF Entertainment Inc.
Gale Anne Hurd
Art Marcum & Matt Holloway, based on Marvel's Punisher comic book series
XY&Z Visual Effects