“Punisher: War Zone” is proof of just how tenacious the people at Marvel Comics are. They’re going to keep remaking and rebooting their characters’ franchises whether anyone likes it or not!
This is the third time they’ve taken a stab at Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, the sourpuss vigilante who’s been murdering villains in comic books for over 30 years. The first film, in 1989, starred Dolph Lundgren. It turned out as well as could be expected, considering it starred Dolph Lundgren. The reboot, in 2004, starred Thomas Jane and was ridiculed by critics and ignored by audiences.
But hey, third time’s the charm, right? “Punisher: War Zone,” which is as laughably campy and violent as ever, follows the same procedure as this summer’s “Incredible Hulk” in that it’s not another origin story, but it’s not really a sequel to the last entry, either. 2004’s “Punisher” had Castle’s entire extended family being murdered; here, it was only his wife and children. Maybe they realized it’s hard to relate to a guy being upset that his mother-in-law was killed.
Castle, now played personality-free by Ray Stevenson (HBO’s “Rome”), has been living in the shadows of New York City and killing bad guys for either four years or five years, depending on which character in the movie you ask. He has an endless stockpile of weapons and some military training. He also has a serious grudge against organized crime — not just the specific Mafiosi who murdered his family (he dispatched them long ago), but all Italian-named thugs, gangsters, and racketeers.
His primary opponent this time is Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (Dominic West), who renames himself Jigsaw after suffering a Punisher-related accident that tears up his face. An undercover FBI agent is killed during the same scuffle, which Castle feels incredibly guilty about. That guy had a wife and kid, after all! Of course, so did many of the hundreds of criminals Castle has murdered over the last four/five years, but never mind.
The police aren’t terribly interested in stopping the Punisher from his vigilantism, since he only punishes people they want off the streets anyway. But the death of the FBI man brings federal attention in the person of Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), a no-nonsense agent (he calls the local cops “Krisy Kreme motherf*****s”) who will stop at nothing — nothing! — to capture Frank Castle and put an end to his reign as self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner.
Directed by Lexi Alexander (“Green Street Hooligans”) from a much-rewritten screenplay eventually credited to Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, “War Zone” — with its cheesy dialogue, over-the-top Brooklyn accents, and violence that violates that laws of physics — might be the most enjoyable bad movie of the year. I laughed at it more than I did at, say, “Four Christmases.” It’s hard not to be entertained, on some level, by the sight of Castle punching a hole in a man’s skull with his fist, or literally blowing people’s heads off with pistols. In this world, a bad guy’s physical stamina always correlates to how useful he is to the plot. No-name henchmen have craniums made of glass; the leading villains, on the other hand, are immortal (even when Castle bashes their heads against brick walls and concrete floors) until the story is done with them, at which point they are easily murdered. Castle himself, who has no supernatural powers of any kind, is shot several times, always in some part of his body covered by a bulletproof vest. (Whew!)
But as Roger Ebert is fond of saying, it’s not what a movie’s about that matters; it’s how it’s about it. All the humor in “War Zone” is unintentional; indeed, the more serious it tries to be, the funnier it gets. Somber scenes set in churches and at grave sites suggest the film actually wants us to ponder its moral and ethical implications — which is sort of like a stripper telling you she wants to go to law school. Yeah, sure, whatever you say, movie. I’m not paying you to talk.
These crazy-violent shoot-em-ups are a lot better when they don’t have such delusions of legitimacy. Show us the bloody revenge, give us a few scenery-chewing performances (I quite like Doug Hutchison as Jigsaw’s lunatic brother), and leave the moral quandaries to Martin Scorsese. It’s “War Zone’s” laughable desire to be taken seriously that makes it enjoyable to watch but a failure at what it was trying to do.
D+ (1 hr., 43 min.; )