In many ways, Punisher: War Zone is a remarkable work. (Watch that end up in breakout quote on a DVD box.) I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more pointlessly excessive movie. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never encountered a sillier screenplay with worse dialogue or a lamer plot. And I’m 100 percent certain that Punisher wins the big prize for most amazing aggregation of bad performances packed into a single film. This is the midget-clown car of bad performances: You sit in rapt wonder as more and more awkward awfulness rolls out of the damned thing. In this regard, the film is something of an accomplishment—an undesirable one, but an accomplishment all the same.
Unlike Jonathan Hensleish’s The Punisher (2004), which now comes across as a masterpiece by comparison, this one jumps in with the assumption—perhaps correctly—that everyone already knows all about this lower-echelon Marvel comic-book “hero.” That way the absurd action can kick in within the first few minutes. If nothing else, it’s economical. The film commences with our gun-toting vigilante—kind of a cross between the earliest comic-book incarnation of Batman and the Shadow with more firepower—knocking off the greater portion of a Mafia family (here referred to as the Cosa Nostra family). Is it exciting? Well, it’s extremely noisy and busy—and very convenient how none of the assembled gangsters at the dinner table are packing heat. Well, perhaps they merely felt it was less embarrassing to just sit there and take it rather than be in any more of the movie.
Wasting no time, the film then moves straight into the creation of its lackluster super criminal. In a scene ripped off from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the villainous, unscrupulous and at least mildly unhinged Billy Russoti (Dominic West, TV’s The Wire) gets knocked into a vat of glass bottles that are being recycled, emerging as more ground chuck than you’ll find on the meat counter during a $1.98-a-pound sale. Somehow or other, he’s miraculously alive (well, there wouldn’t be much of a conflict otherwise) and gets patched together by a plastic surgeon (TV actor Cas Anvar), who—to judge by the results—learned his trade by stitching baseballs. Feeling a bit testy after seeing the doc’s handiwork (a scene also appropriated from Batman), he offs the shady medico and tells his henchmen not to call him Billy anymore, “From now on my name is Jigsaw.” And yes, I know the comic-book Jigsaw predates it, but I was really hoping someone would say, “Nix, boss, that name’s already taken by the Saw franchise. How’s about Baseball Face?” No such luck.
Since Jigsaw isn’t much of a character, the movie gives him a certifiably insane brother, Loony Bin Jim (TV actor Doug Hutchison), who gets busted out of the asylum—pausing long enough for Jim to eviscerate a nasty warder and nosh on his entrails. By now you’ve probably figured out that Punisher is a very splattery essay in comic bookery. This, however, is but sticking a tentative toe in the bloodbath to come. When people are shot, their heads explode like water balloons filled with Karo syrup and food color. There’s more carnage here—shootings, stabbings, hackings, impalings, flying viscera—than in a hardcore horror movie. I don’t personally object, but it plays more like splatstick overkill than anything remotely serious.
And what of the Punisher himself? Well, he’s played by Brit TV actor Ray Stevenson (King Arthur), who seems to be in a contest with Dominic West to see which Brit can do the worst New Yawk accent. (I think West wins, but it’s close.) He’s less interesting than the bad guys in that when he isn’t shooting bad guys, he spends his time moping in his subway lair about accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent—which, I guess, makes a break from brooding over his family’s murder at the worst picnic ever (the event that turned him into the Punisher). Christian Bale’s Batman is a barrel of laughs next to this guy.
There’s a sort of a plot involving Russian gangsters trying to arm would-be terrorists with biological weapons that look like the carriers at a bank’s drive-in window, but none of this matters much. The movie exists solely as a vehicle for its carnage. There’s plenty of that, if you care for that sort of thing. And if you do, make haste, because opening-weekend box office indicates Punisher could be in the Wal-Mart $5 dump bin in time for Christmas as a worthy replacement for those hard-to-find lumps of coal. Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language and some drug use.