Who to blame for the bloody, and bloody awful, mess that is Punisher: War Zone? Director Levi Alexander is an easy enough target, she whose previous career highlights include directing the 2005 Fight Club retread Hooligans, and an “acting” stint as Princess Kitana in Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour. So is leading man Ray Stevenson, whose morose presence and leaden sulking lend the movie all the animative spark of a soggy Marlboro filter.
And let’s not forget Marvel Comics CEO Avi Arad, whose dithering and meddling undoubtedly contributed mightily to the chaos of directorial musical chairs, the muddle of script rewrites and re-rewrites, the abundant fits and starts and production delays that spiraled inevitably downward to the miserable result.
One thing’s for certain: You can’t blame Jonathan Hensleigh or Thomas Jane, the director and star, respectively, of 2004’s The Punisher, the tolerably entertaining predecessor of this alleged reboot. Both men bolted when it became apparent that plans for a sequel were going nowhere fast. And now their version of Punisher—a middling actioner that did a modest box office but scored big in video release—looks like a work of Welles-ian complexity in comparison to Alexander’s beetle-browed clunker.
Granted, the source material—Marvel Comics’ Punisher, aka Frank Castle, a gun-toting badass driven to merciless vigilantism by the murder of his family—is hardly fodder for high-concept cinema. And the plot of War Zone cleaves closely to the character’s basic M.O.: Staging an assault on the palatial home of a high-ranking mobster during a key crime-family summit, Castle (Stevenson) unknowingly kills an undercover FBI agent in the midst of his blood-mad rampage.
In doing so, he becomes a special target of the bureau; assumes a monstrous burden of guilt, and also the responsibility of watching after the dead agent’s wife and young daughter; and earns the undying enmity of gangster Billy Russoti (Dominic West), who somehow survives the gory melee despite having fallen into an inconveniently located glass recycling machine (??!). With his face badly scarred, Russoti is henceforth known as Jigsaw, the Punisher’s arch nemesis.
There’s also the matter of some missing mob money, and a Byzantine backstory involving Russian gangsters and an illicit arms deal and a terrorist attack of uncertain origin, all of which plug into the rest of this mess in a plot-dyslexic, MacGuffin-without-a-cause kind of way.
What stands out most about Punisher: War Zone is its deftly-staged, uber-realistic violence. Credit Stevenson for at least making his character believable as a well-trained weapons expert, slinging bladed weapons out of his shirt sleeves with ninja-like precision; loading, reloading, and firing ambidextrously all manner of guns and missile launchers with a speed and sureness that any Special Forces gun freak would envy.
Trouble is, the blood flows in such torrents, and the toll of bodies mounts in such numbers that the violence simply outpaces the senses, making it difficult to appreciate any of it on even the most mindlessly visceral level.
And certainly, there’s nothing else in this movie that begs for appreciation. The performances range from one-note (West’s strutting, sneering mobster, or Doug Hutchison as his oh-so-crazy criminal brother, Loony Bin Jim) to tone-deaf (Stevenson, who, when he’s not shooting someone’s eyes out or tossing them off a building, bears the expression of a man who has just noticed the wet cigarette butt in his bottle of beer).
That Punisher: War Zone was subjected to multiple rewrites, by multiple writers, is also painfully evident. The movie’s tone can best be described as schizophrenic. Nods to hip-hop culture and modern martial arts antics are unceremoniously lumped in with hints of maudlin drama, buddy-cop shtick, borderline slapstick comedy, and huge bucketfuls of blood.
One particularly ludicrous plot contrivance has Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim wandering through the New York underworld soliciting local street gangs to join them in seeking a collective vengeance against the Punisher. The scene unfolds in montage, with the only constant being a shot of Jim and Jigsaw making their used-car salesmen’s pitch, tongues in cheek, against the backdrop of an American flag, laying out the bad-guy version of the American Dream to the Yakuza, the gang-bangers, the Russians, and fellow Mafioso. The scene is so stupid, so surreal, and so incongruous with the rest of the movie that one can scarcely imagine the kind of desperation, befuddlement, and festering insanity the filmmakers must have experienced that they actually put it on screen.
It would be too much to ask of a comic book-vigilante film to aspire to any level of real artistry (though Christopher Nolan is close to achieving such with his Batman series). But simple coherence would be nice, and certainly a dash of fun. Punisher: War Zone offers none of the above. One feels poorer for having watched it, diminished in spirit, without even the salve of guilty pleasure to take the edge off the sting.