Revenge films tend to follow one of two routes. These stories are either deadly serious or stylized tomes you have to admire for their sheer visual gusto. Punisher: War Zone falls somewhere in between, and that's precisely why it's not a great movie. This latest comic-to-screen adaptation dips its fingers in grim storytelling and gory theatrics, though it never brings both together in cinematic harmony. It's a movie in search of a home, one that seems unwilling to plant its roots, which leads to an eventual but entertaining undoing.
His family executed after witnessing a mob hit, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) has since assumed the identity of a vigilante known as the Punisher. Feared by New York City's criminal ilk and wanted by the police, Castle wages a violent one-man war against anyone on the wrong side of the law, and his latest assault on a local crime family has left one survivor itching for revenge. After landing in a glass-crushing contraption that slices his pretty-boy looks to ribbons, gangster Billy Russoti (Dominic West) emerges as a grotesque thug christened Jigsaw. Determined to reclaim the criminal empire Castle stole from him, Jigsaw sets about recruiting all manner of evildoers in order to take over the Big Apple. Meanwhile, Castle wrestles with his conscience after accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent, forcing him to consider hanging up his guns for good just when he's needed the most.
You might not think the Punisher's dark background would mesh well with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and more traditional superheroes. But though the Punisher may feel like a different beast, with outlandish bad guys and over-the-top set pieces, it's easy to believe this character is ripped straight from the comic pages. Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) attempts to capture this spirit in Punisher: War Zone, and for the most part, she mostly succeeds. 2004's The Punisher was a turgid affair with a straight-to-DVD finish, tolerable but nowhere near as exciting as it could've been. War Zone, on the other hand, comes across as extremely active and much more polished than a movie with this much gratuitous violence should be. And boy, does this flick get brutal, with the opening scene alone featuring more exploding heads and slit throats than in Van Damme's entire resume. There comes a point where the violence appears almost comedic in nature, with the trail of bodies Castle leaves in his wake evolving into a running gag.
Although there are plenty of times when War Zone benefits from the shamelessly silly approach to its own carnage, things get a little murky when Alexander tries to introduce more brooding elements into the plot. Some of the times devoted to serious attention about Frank Castle's tortured psyche -- to remind viewers that he's still an anti-hero who's let the darkness within get the best of him -- may be a nice touch, but when Alexander whips viewers from this introspective character development to show people getting blown to smithereens, the effect is more than a little jarring.
You never get a real handle on what Alexander wants to do, resulting in a fairly schizophrenic atmosphere. Plus, while the action is more than energetic, the listless cast apparently shared a keg of Robitussin. Stevenson comes across as a pretty bland Punisher, Julie Benz is ineffective as the dead agent's wife, and Doug Hutchison is one of the most boring psychos in recent memory. Only West seems to be having a good time, although his stereotypical Brooklyn accent teeters on the brink of total annoyance.
Punisher: War Zone is the best of the three Punisher titles to date. While not a complete success, it displays a better grasp of its intentions as well as the right amount of kick to accompany all the action. Still, you can probably wait to catch this one on DVD.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Lionsgate and rated "R" for pervasive strong brutal violence and some drug use.)