"Punisher: War Zone," the third film based on Marvel's antihero Frank Castle/The Punisher, is the best and closest to the source material.
Finally, a Punisher who pulls no punches. In fact, this one punches through a dude’s head.
The ultraviolent third stab at Marvel’s homicidal vigilante is the best and closest to the source material. Not that it’s close to the same league as “The Dark Knight” or “Spider-Man,” though.
After Dolph Lundgren (try not to laugh) in 1989 and Thomas Jane (eh) in 2004, the new Punisher is a casting match made in geek heaven: Ray Stevenson, who played the lethal yet lovable thug of a soldier, Titus Pullo, in HBO’s “Rome.” (If you haven’t seen it, why are you still sitting there?) He pulls off Punisher Frank Castle’s physicality and ruthlessness, and has sad-dog eyes that convey inner torment that keeps him from Schwarzeneggerism.
Wasting no time re-establishing a clunky “Death Wish” origin, the film opens with The Punisher crashing a mob dinner and serving up an over-the-top killing spree that’s laughable in its excess. And yet really cool. But there’s collateral damage: Accidentally capping an undercover FBI agent, Castle’s eaten with remorse that makes him want to walk away from the brutally-wasting-criminals thing. And he creates an even worse villain when he lets Billy “The Beaut” Russoti get his face mangled in a glass-recycling machine — to rechristen himself “Jigsaw.”
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Meanwhile: The dead fed’s partner (Colin Salmon) goes after Castle with the help of a wimpy one-man “Punisher Task Force” (Dash Mihok) who’s secretly been helping the vigilante. And Castle can’t hang up his guns until he stops Jigsaw and his crazy brother from killing the fed’s widow and daughter.
Don’t even try to keep a body count. You’ll have better luck with a smoking-half-blown-away-head count. Director Lexi Alexander — a former martial-arts competitor and stuntwoman — doesn’t just have a deft touch with action, but shows the violent creativity of someone who should probably be in prison. She continually goes an extra step that pushes gross-out absurdity. Example: Castle shoots a bad guy in the knees, gets information out of him, then tosses him off a roof to be impaled on a fence spike. And then casually hops down on the guy’s head.
The film’s look is noteworthy for replicating Garth Ennis’ comic-book run, with atmospheric colored lighting reminiscent of early Dario Argento flicks (in a good way). And remember Tom Jane’s cheap skull T-shirt? Gone.
While pure-action fans and sociopaths will make little yipping sounds, anyone looking for much story or character won’t leave thinking any higher of comics as literature. Whatever business there is between Castle and the fed’s widow (Julie Benz) remains vague and incomplete. Castle’s arc? Well, he punishes bad guys.
West plays Jigsaw with a hammy broadness that clashes with The Punisher’s no-nonsense mood. Instead of making for a Joker-and-Batman dynamic, it just doesn’t fit — more like throwing Cesar Romero from the ’60s Batman series into “The Dark Knight” instead of Heath Ledger.
As for the dialogue, you know to expect some silliness. But Stevenson could make a Christmas carol sound threatening. When someone tells him, “God be with you,” he snarls, “Sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God.” Which I’d kind of like to see in a sequel.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org