December is the place where movies go to die. Or to be nominated for Oscars. It really depends on the film. Punisher: War Zone is probably not in the latter category. Still, if No Country for Old Men wasn’t too violent, incoherent, and boring to be Best Picture, maybe Frank Castle and Co. have a shot.
The Incredible Hulk made an improbable amount of money for a film that was a remake/reboot/sequel (a friend suggested “requel”) of another Hulk movie only five years old. So the powers that be dusted off the Punisher, rescued the character from a host of bad decisions that sank his last outing four years ago (among them, John Travolta as the villain), and promptly sank him under a metric ass-ton of new mistakes.
As appears to be the norm for this character, Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) doesn’t speak a single word until half an hour into the film. Even then, his economy of speech suggests a disinterest in communication that probably has a lot to do with the isolation of being a mass murderer wanted by the police and, as the movie begins, the FBI. By the time we catch up with Frank, not-so-merrily but efficiently decapitating a wheelchair-bound mafia don and breaking his wife’s neck at the dinner table, he’s been working the Punisher gig for about five years. The traumatic watershed moment that turned Frank, ex-marine and ex-cop, into a fascist killer, is revisited in effective flashbacks. (Especially because they, unlike most of the movie, are saturated with color.) The consequences of the carnage unleashed by that moment fill an entire basement’s worth of filing cabinets at police headquarters.
Where those headquarters are is anybody’s guess. Most of the mooks getting mowed down by the Punisher have atrocious Joi-zee accents, the worst offenders being the lead villain and his brother, Jigsaw (Dominic West, doing a poor man’s Heath Ledger with his deformity makeup) and Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson). Frank appears to have a secret lair inside of the cleanest subway tunnels this side of Universal Studios. The FBI man (Colin Salmon) brought in to investigate the death of his undercover colleague at the Punisher’s hands loses his battle with his British accent more often than he wins it. (A fate that Ray Stevenson does not share because he has about three lines. Dominic West covers with the aforementioned Accent That Ate A Place Almost But Not Quite Entirely Unlike New Jersey.)
The plot is a mess, needless to say, with loyalties shifting more often than the Punisher switches weapons. After accidentally killing the FBI informant spying on Jigsaw’s operation, Frank attempts to make it up to his widow, Angela (Julie Benz) and young daughter, triggering a series of cute/tragic interactions with both that inevitably put them into more danger rather than less. Mercifully, the film does not attempt to throw over Angela’s wicked hatred of Frank, her husband’s murderer, in favor of a romance subplot; the humanization of the Punisher comes instead through his interactions with the little girl. When forced to choose between her and his accomplice and weapons supplier, Frank chooses the girl. Why he’s ever allowed that much chance, after beating, shooting, stabbing, beheading, and neck-breaking his way into a final confrontation with Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim (abbreviated once as “LBJ,” notable for being the only time I laughed), I can’t say. There are Russians involved. (Aren’t there always?)
The saving grace of the entire film is Ray Stevenson, late of HBO’s Rome, who is marvelous in the role despite the film’s other limitations. He’s got the look—Stevenson, unlike previous Punishers, has a brawler’s build that is enhanced with the practical military-style wardrobe and slicked, black hair. (He’s also two heads taller than everyone else, which is authentically intimidating.) He’s got the chops, conveying Frank’s confusion and frustration and desperation better without words than with them. (In the flashback to the massacre of his family, you can see the moment where Frank’s grief slides into horrible, horrible rage; Stevenson doesn’t even move.) The problem comes when he has to read the awful dialogue or interact with the camp freak show combo of Jigsaw and LBJ. (Hee, still funny.)
The film is being released under the “Marvel Knights” imprint; in the comics, the Marvel Knights issues were supposed to be grittier and more risqué. Punisher: War Zone certainly has the highest body count of any Marvel title to date. It is fitting that the villain is named Jigsaw; the violence is definitely in the spirit of the Saw films at times. Since some people might still be interested in seeing this film for the best bits of violence and Frank-being-a-badass, allow me to spoil them for you and then you can get on with your life. The standouts are a scene in which Frank fixes his own broken nose by shoving a pencil up one nostril and straightening it and a one-two murder combo where he punches in a thug’s face (IT CAVES IN) and then blows off another’s as the FBI agent is trying to read him his rights. Everything else—from the Rasta Irish meth-heads doing parkour (you read it here first!) to Jigsaw enlisting gang-bangers using the metaphor of signing up soldiers to fight in Iraq (if it weren’t a guy with a patchwork face saying it, you’d think you’d stumbled into an Army recruiter’s office)—is just details.