Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle
Dominic West as Billy Russoti / Jigsaw
Doug Hutchison as Loony Bin Jim
Colin Salmon as Paul Budiansky
Wayne Knight as Micro
Dash Mihok as Martin Soap
Julie Benz as Angela Donatelli
Stephanie Janusauskas as Grace
Mark Camacho as Pittsy
Romano Orzari as Nicky Cavella
Keram Malicki-Sánchez as Ink
Larry Day as Agent Miller
Ron Lea as Captain Ross
Tony Calabretta as Saffiotti
T.J. Storm as Maginty
Directed by Lexi Alexander
Bad writing, worse acting and violence that redefines the word “excessive” makes it clear that The Punisher is one Marvel character that probably should stay in the comic books.
Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson), known by cops and criminals as the Punisher, runs into new problems in his fight against the mob after he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent and decides to throw in the towel. His friend Micro (Wayne Knight) convinces him to return to duty when mobster Billy Russoti (Dominic West) has resurfaced as the villainous Jigsaw after being disfigured in an earlier encounter, and Frank feels an obligation to protect the dead agent’s wife (Julie Benz) and daughter.
Any hopes that third time’s the charm in bringing The Punisher to the big screen might as well be squelched immediately, as the attempt to take a different and more violent approach by director Lexi Alexander ultimately fails, proving once and for all that the character just doesn’t work when taken off the comic book page. Granted, they’ve taken more from the comic books this time than any previous Punisher moviethe look is clearly influenced by the art of Tim Bradstreet and it does get a good number of things right like relationship between the Punisher and Microchip (played by Wayne Knight from “Seinfeld”) and the dopey Detective Soapbut otherwise, it’s a movie that’s marred by horrendously bad writing and a weak cast of D-level actors who aren’t able to make it better.
It’s kind of a shame since director Lexi Alexander’s earlier film “Hooligans” was terrific, featuring strong performances grounded in reality, but those sensibilities have been ignored in favor of something ridiculously over-the-top even by the standards of a comic book character with a reputation that would generally deserve it.
For the first ten or fifteen minutes, Ray Stevenson doesn’t say a word as he polishes off a room full of mobsters, and when he does open his mouth, you realize why it might have been better to keep him the dark, silent type, because he plays the role far too seriously to be even remotely enjoyable, as if he’s performing Shakespeare. In one particularly and unintentionally funny scene, Stevenson stands over a colleague who’s been chopped into pieces by an axe and shouldn’t even be breathing, and grimly tells him “Don’t die on me.” By the time we see Frank in church talking to a preacher and uttering lines like “Someday, I’d love to get my hands on God” you’ll be laughing so hard, it’s hard for the movie to recover. Surely Steven Seagal could have pulled off a better performance without trying as hard.
Even worse, if that’s possible, Dominic West gives a scenery-chewing performance as a good-looking Italian gangster whose face has been horribly disfigured by an earlier encounter with the Punisher. From the second West opens his mouth with a terrible accent that makes him sound like a “Sopranos” reject, you know you’re in for trouble, and after being put through a Joker-style origin that turns him into Jigsaw, West spends the rest of the movie hamming it up with Doug Hutchison as his nutty brother, appropriately nicknamed “Loony Bin Jim,” the two of them dominating the movie with their ridiculous antics. Coming so soon after the quality of villainy depicted by Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face in “The Dark Knight,” it’s even more embarrassing.
With much of the plot revolving around Frank’s guilt about accidentally killing an undercover FBI man then trying to protect his family from the mob, the film diverges from the action for a number of “touching” scenes with the daughter that seem ridiculously out of place. (As does a flashback showing Frank with his family and Stevenson gleefully smiling and wearing a brightly-colored sweater, a scene more shocking than any of the violence.)
Much of the movie feels like they’re trying anything and everything until something sticks, the worst idea being a trio of acrobatic crooks led by a dreadlocked fellow named “Maginty,” played by T.J. Storm who sports possibly the worst Irish accents ever uttered by an actor in the history of acting. Who knows why it was necessary to introduce these pseudo-breakdancers into the story merely to act as cannon fodder, but they’re the most ridiculous aspect of a movie that is filled with gangster stereotypes from Italian goombas and cranky Russians to a mob of nameless black and Asian gangsters for Frank to kill in the big bullet-happy finale. The rest of the cast isn’t much better than those three, Colin Salmon (“Resident Evil”) being typically bad as Detective Soap’s partner Budiansky, playing things way too seriously to make the relationship work. That’s just one example of how the movie lacks the humor of Garth Ennis, whose writing made his run on the character’s book such a rich source of material for the movie. When that humor finally does show up during Jigsaw’s recruitment speech for thugs to take down the Punisher, it seems so out of place that it becomes the type of “What were they thinking” moment that people cite when talking about the worst superhero movies like “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman.”
Clearly a lot of time and care has been put into the production design to give the movie a distinctive look, but despite the establishing shots, this never really feels like New York City. While that’s minor compared to breakdancing baddies, it’s just another factor in ruining any illusion of realism that might have helped the movie rise above its comic book roots.
Then there’s the violence. Those bummed about how little blood and violence there was in the “Max Payne” movie might regret wanting more after seeing how far Alexander upped the ante from the previous two moviespeople’s faces being turned into gooey pulp from close-up shotgun wounds and limbs literally being blown off. All of it goes completely above and beyond what is necessary and what anybody but the sickest individuals might want to watch for any extended period of time. When all else fails, as it does, the soundtrack is punched up with thrash metal trying to make things more exciting, but by then, the mix of shock, boredom and sheer incredibility at what you’ve just watched has made it impossible to thrill to watching the Punisher do what he does best.
The Bottom Line:
With comic book movies like “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” redefining what can be done on film with these characters, “Punisher: War Zone” is a tragic throwback to the ’90s, one that might appeal to the lowest brow comic readers but isn’t even remotely satisfying for anyone wanting solid entertainment.