SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for "Punisher: War Zone."
Ray Stevenson, as The Punisher, looks like he just walked out of a Tim Bradstreet-illustrated comic book cover in "Punisher: War Zone," the new film based on the classic Marvel Comics anti0hero. The actor, who portrayed Titus Pullo in HBO's "Rome," looks and for the most part sounds like Frank Castle should. His dialogue is kept to a minimum, and Stevenson has a special talent for fierce scowling while murdering people on screen.
"War Zone," the third attempt to start a Punisher film franchise, is 85% of what you always wanted out of a Punisher movie. It also has 15% of everything you never wanted to see in a Punisher movie. To get to the good, you have to wait through the bad. However, it is worth the effort.
In the film, Frank Castle is dead set on taking down the Russoti Crime Family. Amongst that organization is Billy "The Beau" Russoti. After Frank quickly eliminates the heads of the organization, figuratively and literally, he chases Billy to the docks. There, the two major beats of the film occur. Frank accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent and tosses Billy into a glass recycling machine, horribly disfiguring the mobster.
While Frank grapples with a way to become square with the Bureau agent's family, Billy becomes Jigsaw, a twisted version of himself intent on not letting his disfigurement get in the way of business.
Let's talk about the aforementioned 15%.
"War Zone" asks Frank Castle to be someone he is not during the quieter moments. His grousing about the FBI agent never sits quite right in the same film that sees The Punisher punch through a guy's skull and into a wall. The pathos is effective in one scene, where Frank tries to give the agent's family money. The agent's widow, played by professional screen-victim Julie Benz, pulls a gun on Frank. He positions her handgun to deliver a killing shot. Frank's willingness to die and atone actually feels right, but no subsequent interaction between the two characters is as natural. Like in last spring's "Rambo," Benz is saddled with the potential love-interest/salvation role that never actually materializes. The part makes even less sense in a Punisher movie than it does in "Rambo."
That same scene introduces a daughter character than turns Frank into a gentile giant. Every so often, a scene like this occurs and kills all the momentum in the film. The daughter, charmed by Frank, interacts with him in such a way that he remembers the family man he used to be. Though the little girl is not overly precocious or cute, their scenes together play something less than earnestly. It is an obvious attempt to humanize Frank; something the Punisher does not need.
Beyond these domestic moments, the film aspires to the tone of comic book creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's seminal "Punisher: Welcome Back Frank" graphic novel, and generally succeeds. The action scenes are loud and well crafted, with a healthy dose of comedic edge. They are not camp, like you might fear in a comic book movie. Instead, the film embraces the cartoonish hyper-violence a character like The Punisher should engage in. Instead of trying to be serious in the fights, the filmmakers giddily embraced the absurdity of it all. Every action scene is immensely satisfying in its mix of explosions, blood splatter, and well-timed gore. For once, Frank gets to kill people in genuinely thrilling and interesting ways.
Pay particular attention to the "Urban Free Flow" Gang in the film. The first punishment in that group is a highlight of the film and the clearest signal of just how "War Zone" is intended to be received.
While a departure from his comic book counterpart, Dominic West's scenes as Jigsaw in the film are always electric and fun. West, like Stevenson, is a veteran of an HBO drama, having starred in "The Wire" for all five seasons. In "War Zone," West's driven but natural Jimmy McNulty is tossed aside for a larger than life take on the ever-present Punisher foe. Once disfigured, his costumes become outlandish and his manner approaches the cliche of movie crazy. West actually pulls off these excess because of the previously established tone of the film. This is an Ennis sort of Jigsaw, played for absurd laughs, but always a potent foe for Frank. The makeup effects for Jigsaw back this up. Initially quite silly, Jigsaw's face makes perfect sense by the time he announces "Billy's dead. Call me Jigsaw."
Jigsaw is flanked by a brother known as Looney Bin Jim (or LBJ), played by Doug Hutchison. While stated to be even crazier than Jigsaw, the character perfectly compliments Jigsaw. He is the court Jester with a habit of pulling organs out of people to eat.
As Frank becomes more involved with widow and daughter, Jigsaw and Looney Bin Jim light up the movie. In one particular scene, Jigsaw recruits other gang crews as though he were General Patton. He claims his premise is the same as the U.S. Army, "We'll tell them they won't go to Iraq, and they'll get money when they're done."
Similarly, the supporting cast round out the movie nicely. Dash Mihok's turn as Detective Martin Soap will be familiar and welcome right away. Slightly resembling a Steve Dillon illustration, Mihok nicely embodies the character's inability to perform or cope. Soap is partnered up with FBI Agent Paul Budiansky, played by Colin Salmon. His voice is filed with pride and authority. Attempting to find The Punisher when none of the NYPD care to assist him, he actually manages to apprehend Frank. Their fight, somewhat reminiscent of a similar fight in "They Live," is the only one where Frank is even close to being matched by his opponent.
Wayne Knight also appears as Microchip. He is more Wayne Knight than the character from the comic books, but his understanding of Frank's behavior scores one of the movie's great non-violence-induced laughs.
All of these characters converge at the Brad Street Hotel (see what they did there?) for the final shootout. Showcasing well-crafted digital and practical effects, this final explosion of ultra-violence is one of the more satisfying third act set pieces of late. Funny and well-staged, Frank's use of a grenade launcher is a highlight. You also have to give it for Frank as a character and the filmmakers for always giving a mercy-shot to the brutally wounded.
What ultimately sets "Punisher: War Zone" apart from its predecessors - 1989's "The Punisher," starring Dolph Lungren and 2004's "The Punisher" starring Thomas Jane -- is this film's embrace of the outlandish tone that fits the character so well. Instead of trying to shoe-horn Frank into a generic superhero movie plot or turn him into Iron Man, "War Zone," with a few notable exceptions, keeps Frank a humorless goon who kills the bad guys real good. Despite the stilted attempts to humanize him, Frank walks away from the film with the skull still on his chest and a gun in his hand. Instead of trying to understand why Frank kills, the movie just lets him get on with business. And really, that is all The Punisher needs to be.