December 11, 2008

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Punisher: War Zone (R)
Ray Stevenson takes over the scary skull shirt and the thirst for vengeance on the world’s wrong-doers in yet another Punisher movie, this one Punisher: War Zone.

War Zone, I guess, because there’s a bit about criminal armies lining up to fight the Punisher a.k.a. Frank Castle, the former family man who now fights all manner of baddies. Really, the subtitle is unimportant — Punisher: Bang Bang would have worked just as well, or even Punisher 2, though this movie is not a direct sequel to the most recent Punisher film. When we last saw him, Castle was played by Thomas Jane and his entire family (including parents, cousins, whomever) was mowed down at a reunion beach party. But that was 2004 and The Punisher. Now, unburdened of the definite article and the need to explain the backstory (we get flashbacks which, really, work just fine), Stevenson is Castle, formerly of Special Forces and he watched two children die as well as his wife, this time at a picnic (where his family witnessed a gangland killing; which begs the question of just what kind of park they were hanging out at). This history revision aside, the outcome is the same — a Castle/Punisher with a dead family and some seriously hard feelings toward mobsters.

After shooting up a “beat the rap” party for a mobster who we never see again anyway (so why bother learning his name?), Punisher heads out to a warehouse where two plot-pushing-forward events take place: (1) he accidentally kills an undercover F.B.I. agent, leaving him with even more guilt and a feeling of responsibility for the man’s wife (Julie Benz) and young daughter; and (2) he pushes rising criminal star Billy Russoti (Dominic West) into a recycler that basically scrapes off Billy’s face, turning him into Jigsaw, a horribly deformed psychopath. Because crazy loves company, Jigsaw gets his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) to join him in his quest to kill Punisher and assume control of the criminal underworld.

I wish I’d bothered to calculate the ratio of shootings to beheadings to impalings in this movie. You can see interchangeable henchmen get shot any day of the week on some of your cheesier TV shows and certainly in any given action movie; I think it’s the creative violence that would sell this movie to its core audience. And, OK, I guess there are enough impalings and head-loppings to keep your average action fan interested. But this Punisher doesn’t go out of its way to do anything new with its violence, nor does it offer much more than violence to excite the viewer. Same old survivor’s guilt, same old with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility.

Attempts to make Billy a wacky villain mostly fall flat and Punisher certainly has no comic highjinks in him. The movie is, at its best, OK and at its worst has you itching for the fast-forward button. It feels like something you’d watch while falling asleep on some snow-bound Sunday afternoon, not like a movie that deserves two hours out of your busy day or $10 from your wallet. C-

Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language and some drug use. Directed by Lexi Alexander and written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, Punisher: War Zone is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate