One of the many complaints that greeted the 2004 adaptation of the Marvel Comics bruiser “The Punisher” was the lack of…ya know, punishing. Well, Hollywood has heard the cries of those dear comic book fanboys, bringing on “Punisher: War Zone,” and all this baby does is punish.
Sadly, the real suffering is inflicted on the audience, who might respond to the sheer carnage of this update, yet are forced to endure directorial blunders sprayed all over the picture before the reward of the unholy hurt. Now a fixture of remorseless vigilante justice, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson, “Rome”) has set his sights on vain crime boss Billy Russoti (Dominic West).
When a bust goes bad and an undercover FBI agent is killed, Castle reconsiders his journey of vengeance, while Billy, rechristened Jigsaw after a nasty incident inside a recycling plant glass grinder, makes a play for the agent’s widow (Julie Benz) to recover lost cash. Resuming his reign of violence, Castle sets out to protect the widow and her daughter, hunting for Jigsaw and brother Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), while the cops (Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok, doing his best Gilligan impression) attempt to track Castle down for arrest.
I’ll gladly admit to enjoying writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s pass at the “Punisher” franchise. While it definitely kept away from violent extremes, Hensleigh made an effort to recalibrate Castle’s wrath with a change to gusty Floridian environments, orchestrating a master plan of vengeance rooted in acts of deception over the crude splattering of brains. It was a semi-clever picture with pleasing idiosyncrasy. “War Zone” has no patience for deferred torment, going full blast to havoc to soothe those who didn’t find pants-tightening bullet nirvana with the 2004 film (or the 1989 no-budget Dolph Lundgren incarnation).
The director is Lexi Alexander, whose previous dance of testosterone tomfoolery was in 2005’s “Green Street Hooligans,” a banal descent into Euro football fanaticism starring the very definition of butch: Elijah Wood. Alexander doesn’t hold much dexterity as a storyteller, but the depths of awful that “War Zone” sinks to still manage to dumbfound.
The intent of the film is crystal clear: to bring Castle back to his vicious, monosyllabic roots. The funny book details are in the feeble lighting design (the picture looks more “Last Dragon 2” than ink and paint reverent), the stark city-wise locations, and the sheer wallop of the violence. Alexander isn’t understated with her filmmaking and that’s the thick red line that will surely divide audiences. Either you dig into this indefatigable cartoon or you resist it every step of the way. I vote the latter.
It’s not that “War Zone” is simply over-the-top. It’s practically set on fire with absurdity, perverting the razor edge of the titular character with its continuous parade of unintentional and intentional laughs. With all the roller-rink orange lighting and dreadful casting, how is anyone supposed to process the abysmal dialogue (Looney Bin Jim holding an axe: “Let me AXE you a question!”), the ludicrously CG-enhanced bloodshed (I doubt a drop of Karo was spilled on set), and the overall psychology of Jigsaw. The villain of the piece, Jigsaw looks to huff Joker fumes, but the character lacks the psychotic charm, due in great part to West’s lackluster interpretation.
Jigsaw is a clown cursed with a poorly stitched-together face, trading mob-kissed suits for Goodwill reject clothes (ending up in some sort of pink Sgt. Pepper felt outfit that’s completely unexplained), and toying incestually with his brother. Alexander just lets West ham it up to the nth degree. Along with Hutchinson, the screen hasn’t seen such aggressive superhero film miscasting since Reb Brown.
Armed with eardrum-piercing accents (leave it to an Englishman and a Midwesterner to portray red-sauce-spitting New York goombah?) and miles of scenery to chew, Castle’s foes resemble “Gong Show” rejects, not colorful antagonists. I feel awful for Stevenson, forced to compete with only a strained growl, Steven Seagal hair, and a vaguely reworked backstory that keeps “War Zone” from a true sequel/reboot/remake/whatever label the production is hinting it with inconsistent screenwriting. Poor guy. This is no way to establish a career in movies.
As previously mentioned, “War Zone” is a film purely motivated by gratuitous violence, not pulpy characterization or fingernail-chewing tension. Heads are popped like pimples (when they’re not sliced in half), ammunition is never in short supply, and there’s actually a moment in this movie where Castle bazookas a meth-enhanced, rooftop-flipping hoodlum out of the sky.
It’s an orgy of brutality that expires upon introduction, as Alexander fails to establish a consistent tone. Once “War Zone” switches from brawny to farcical in the second half, all grace is lost and the picture becomes unreasonably, unforgivably juvenile. I can’t imagine the comic book Frank Castle would ever allow such humiliation. A picture of deliberate stupidity and derivative artistry, “Punisher: War Zone” is so atrocious it makes professional wrestling look like a whimsical afternoon with Shakespeare in the Park by comparison.