After two failed attempts at big-screen adaptations, Marvel Comics' ruthless vigilante anti-hero the Punisher has returned to make one more go of it with Punisher: War Zone. This time it's Ray Stevenson, star of HBO's short-lived period drama Rome, laying down the law in the title role, with German kickboxer-turned-director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) choreographing the carnage.
And boy, is there carnage. From the outset, Punisher: War Zone loudly announces its intentions: to pack enough over-the-top brutality and mayhem into its roughly 105-minute running time as the MPAA will allow. And judging from the grisly results, the Ratings Board was in quite the charitable mood when they screened this puppy. Much like Sylvester Stallone's recent Rambo reboot, War Zone functions as a demonstration of the myriad ways in which a person can meet his or her excruciating demise. Disembowelment, decapitation, incineration, you name it -- if there's a way to kill someone,Punisher has mastered it. (So creative are his methods, in fact, that I tallied them in The Punisher: War Zone Body Count.)
Though officially billed as a sequel to 2004's The Punisher, in which Thomas Jane played the lead, War Zone is really more of a reboot, bearing little resemblance to its predecessor apart from the mood of its protagonist. Stevenson's Frank Castle is still a bitter, nihilistic mofo with an arsenal rivaling Al Qaeda and a longing to kill as many criminals as possible. His primary adversary this time around is Jigsaw, (played by The Wire's Dominic West), a prettyboy Mafioso who swears revenge on the Punisher after being tossed into a massive container conveniently filled with broken glass --with predictably gruesome results -- by our hero.
Lionsgate reportedly went through all sorts of hand-wringing trying to figure out what to do with War Zone, and it's easy to see why. For most of the film, director Alexander can't seem to pinpoint precisely the tone that she's after. Is this a straight-up action flick or some sort of trippy comedy? Isit a deconstruction of the vigilante mythos or a reinforcement of it? As an audience, are we in on the joke or the butt of it? It's never quite certain.
The uncertainty extends to the cast. West is gleefully over-the-top, projecting an exaggerated Brooklyn accent that would make Tony Manero cringe. Ditto for his brother-henchman Loony Bin Jim, played by Doug Hutchison. Other cast members, including Julie Benz and Colin Salmon, play it determinedly straight. Stevenson's performance, meanwhile, exists somewhere in the middle, as if he's hedging his bets.
And where does that leave yours truly? Faced with the choice of labeling Punisher: War Zone an appallingly dreadful action flick or a strange, intriguing, and somewhat schizophrenic comedy, I went with the latter, if only to give Lexi Alexander, who actually shot the film quite beautifully, the benefit of the doubt. This is the holiday season, after all.
Disagree? Let me know at tleupp@Reelz.com.