Sort of Awful

The Punisher gets another shot at big-screen glory--but the result is mediocrity

Filmmakers have now taken three cracks at the story of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher--and all three qualify as misfires.

The first featured Dolph Lundgren in 1989, and the words "Dolph Lundgren" basically sum up the problem. The second starred Thomas Jane donning the skull shirt and shooting up bad guys four years ago--and Jane sucked even worse than Lundgren.

Now we get Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone, Marvel's latest attempt to give this character some life. While the film offers a small step in the right direction, it's still pretty damn bad. Stevenson makes for a decent, heavily armed bitter guy, but the story surrounding him is uneven--at best. He looks good in the Punisher body armor, adorned with that wicked skull, but the tone given off by his adversaries, mainly the villainous Jigsaw (Dominic West), makes them seem like they should be in another movie.

The film kicks off with an overtly stereotypical depiction of Italian Americans getting together for some mobster talk. A nice Italian dinner is interrupted by Castle, who hangs from a chandelier and mows everybody down as he spins round and round. Question: Since he was spinning around, couldn't one of the bad guys have shot Castle as his back was turned? Seriously, it probably takes a good three seconds for one rotation, which seems like plenty of time to put a cap in somebody's Marvel ass. These things annoy me.

One thing's for sure: Punisher: War Zone contains off-the-chart mega-violence. Victims get their faces shot off, get impaled by poles and swords, and get blown up real good. The character of Billy Russoti becomes Jigsaw after a spell in a glass-recycling pit, where rotating shards of glass make his face into hamburger. He then spends the rest of the film in comical makeup, his face stitched together like a skin quilt fashioned by Ed Gein.

Director Lexi Alexander deserves some credit for making a movie that isn't completely intolerable, all things considered. She certainly manages to shoot some impressive (if improbable) action scenes, and portions of the film are competent. It's just that those portions aren't stitched into a cohesive piece. Jigsaw comes off like a goofy Joel Schumacher Batman villain, while Castle has a more-serious nature. The moments when we are supposed to laugh feel out of place.

Actress Julie Benz follows up her turns in Saw V and Rambo with another thankless role. She's a likable actress with a lousy agent. Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) is actually kind of credible as Punisher's occasional sidekick and arms supplier, Micro. Doug Hutchison, the creepy guard from The Green Mile, gets to chew the scenery, and some human kidneys, as Loony Bin Jim, and he is appropriately creepy.

While I won't give it away, the end of the film made me laugh out loud. It's a successful piece of humor, and the entire film could've used more of it. Alas, it's too little, too late.

It's funny that something like this got a release date in December, when studios are focusing on award-worthy fare and blockbusters. This movie year has been weak, and the fact that near-junk like this could get such an important release date is shocking.

Considering it's not terribly awful--just sort of awful--Punisher: War Zone probably would've qualified as better-than-average straight-to-video fare. As it stands, it's just another mediocre cinematic release--and probably the death knell for Frank Castle on the big screen.