As superheroes go, Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher, doesn't seem like the most worthy candidate to warrant three different movie adaptations in 20 years. His mission is vengeance, and his superpower is just a van full of guns. Someone like Spider-Man or Batman requires a rich yet relatable backstory, explaining the relationship between his fate- or self-given powers and how he chooses to use them. The Punisher's logline is comparably simple (bad guys killed his family; now he kills bad guys), and no one needs to explain where he got his van or guns (probably Wal-Mart).
To make this man interesting requires a certain amount of style and attention to detail, two of many qualities lacking in Punisher: War Zone, the newest Punisher... well, "adventure" sounds too frolicsome, so let's say "incident." Like The Incredible Hulk
, Punisher: War Zone ignores but doesn't quite contradict the events of its immediate predecessor; it's not a direct sequel to 2004's The Punisher, but at least allows the previous film to take care of the origin business. Article continues below
In spirit, this quick revisionism makes a kind of sense; new filmmakers and actors can offer their varied takes on the source material, like comic-book teams or the Alien movies. This new version supposedly has more in common with the gritty Punisher comics written by Garth Ennis. And having read some of Ennis's non-Punisher work, I recognize the profanity and the ultraviolence, but not the dark wit or moral center. The first scene establishes this Castle, now played by Ray Stevenson
, as a more hands-on murderer than before. Heads explode, bodies split, skin is punctured, and the movie announces that it will not traffic in suspense; Stevenson will hulk into a room, blow it to fleshy bits, and go on his grim way.
One of Castle's mafia foes, Billy Russoti (Dominic West
), makes it out of the attacks alive, reborn as the heavily scarred villain Jigsaw (no relation to the Saw mastermind), wreaking havoc alongside his even more homicidal brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison
). Meanwhile, Castle agonizes over a semi-accidental murder, and protects a widow (Julie Benz) and her daughter. Benz also got protected by Stallone in Rambo; she's the go-to love uninterest for stoic, remote mass murderers more attracted to hardware.
Stevenson makes a meatier, less charismatic Punisher than Jane, without any cartoon energy to match Jigsaw, who looks and sounds like a third-rate Dick Tracy villain. While Stevenson glowers, most of the rest cast competes to give the least believable, most wooden performance. This quickly devolves into a run-off between Colin Salmon as a glowering FBI agent and Hutchison, whose Loony Bin Jim would be mannered if the actor could settle on a mere one or two mannerisms. Instead, he overacts like a distracted little kid who taught himself from watching late night cable.
The action sequences, too, have a childlike sensibility (if not innocence), predicated on the idea that nothing is more badass than people getting really, really thoroughly killed -- the extras begin to look like action figures pulled apart by a hyperactive 10-year-old. The director, Lexi Alexander
(who was nominated for a short film Oscar back in 2003), shoots her ersatz New York in lurid bright colors that sometimes manage to look bled over from the pages of a comic book. But the tone is more D-movie slasher than hard-edged pulp, with hackneyed attempts to alternately humanize and glamorize Castle's nastiness. Punisher: War Zone is occasionally terrible enough to be funny, but never funny enough to overcome its thundering stupidity.