Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Julie Benz. Rated R.
To complain that Punisher: War Zone lacks
subtlety would be, I fear, to miss the point
entirely. During a year overcrowded with superheroes who appear surprisingly
self-aware, enough to recognize and fear the darkness in their own souls, Frank
Castle seems an archaic throwback, a gunslinger who kills on a whim and moves
on. He shoots the Bad Guys – most of the time – so the police leave him alone.
But the trail of colorfully mutilated bodies he leaves in his wake suggests
more a serial killer who enjoys his work than a tortured vigilante driven by
the need to inflict justice.
Castle has always occupied a position of moral ambiguity
compared to fellow comic-book icons, perhaps because his only superpower, if he
can be said to have one, is his rage. His family slain by the mob, he packs up
his artillery and hits the road, hungry for revenge. That might explain why
2004’s Punisher, starring Thomas Jane,
was such a sullen, humorless affair. War Zone, which is less a sequel than a
Ray Stevenson (of HBO’s Rome)
donning Castle’s black body armor for an adventure that is more campy than Jane's and, unexpectedly, far more violent.
Fans of the slasher genre have complained in recent years
that filmmakers have toned down the violence (and, in doing so, compromised the
integrity of movies like Alien Vs. Predator
and this year’s Prom Night remake)
to achieve the coveted PG-13 rating. Not here. While Punisher: War
Zone is not a typical slasher film, it has
more in common with Hellraiser
than Hellboy, which should come
as welcome news to those with a taste for exploding skulls, graphic
decapitations and cannibalistic feasts.
The plot: Vicious mob captain Billy Russoti (Dominic West)
takes over the family business just minutes before Castle tosses him headfirst
into a glass compactor. Undeterred and hideously disfigured – his face
resembling a lattice pie – Russoti assumes the mantle of Jigsaw, a hammy,
Joker-esque (think Nicholson, not Ledger) super-villain, and springs his
kidney-chomping brother (Doug Hutchison, of The Green Mile) from the psych ward. Terror
ensues in a city
purported to be New York, though well-traveled viewers may recognize fleeting
glimpses of the Montréal subway system.
Does it really matter what happens next? Punisher fans and the
uninitiated alike might well guess that
Castle, a taciturn enforcer who displays no mercy – ever – cleans up the
brothers’ bloody mess by creating one of his own. (“Who punishes you?” someone
asks him, quite reasonably.) There is no hope for this man’s redemption, and he
wouldn’t have it any other way.
If I’ve made Punisher: War Zone sound aggressively unpleasant,
it really isn’t. Dumb?
Yes. Gratuitous? Absolutely. Critics who have savaged the film, of whom there
are many, have cited the movie’s most memorable line – “I guess I’ll put you
out of my misery” – as a neat summation of the viewing experience. Hardly. If
anything, the film is so insanely over the top, so unapologetically
disconnected from reality, that it becomes a sort of manic, hyper-violent
comedy. Whether it was intended that way is anybody’s guess, and though I have
my doubts that Punisher: War Zone
earns the right to be described as satire, well, at least it’s not boring.