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The original Punisher—I don’t mean the Dolph Lundgren installment—was one of those films that I saw, thought was ok, and subsequently forgot all about. It wasn’t bad and I like Thomas Jane, however, there was nothing in it that begged for a second viewing, nor the necessity for a sequel. With that said, we are talking Avi Arad and Marvel here, (or is it Marvel Knights as the new, pretty much the same, opening animated sequence shows), and if he can try his hand a second time with a franchise to try and get more money … cough … Hulk … cough … he will. Exit Jane and enter Ray Stevenson, a big brooding sort ready to make heads roll, add a reasonably new director in Lexi Alexander and the guarantee of an R-rating, and maybe you will get box office gold. Right? Not quite. Punisher: War Zone definitely lives up to its promise of dark and bleak and bloody red, but besides that, there is once again nothing really worth remembering, except for maybe the abundance of over-acting. If you are going to go dark and violent, go all the way. Do not try and cut it with stiff acting and attempts at humor. Maybe I’m completely off base having never read the comic, but the moments I laughed at never felt right and the exploding heads got old real quick.

One thing this film gets right, though, is mood and atmosphere. I love the use of neon light and the smoky, dirty city streets. It all has an unclean feel to it that works. The city seems full of metal as reflections abound throughout the bluish/gray hue shrouding the screen. Alexander, or her cinematographer, has a handle on composition as well, giving us extreme angles and harsh crops. Oftentimes there will be a frame wherein the face is pushed way right, leaving three-quarters of our viewing area as blurred and muted background. It is a nice effect, keeping the audience’s eyes moving around the screen, seeking out their next point of focus, while also creating gorgeous moments of artistic flourishes. One of the few scenes of color occurs in a church with the blurred, bouncing dots of colored light seen at the back. It’s very nice to look at while still not leaving the mechanical/industrial aesthetic behind, something that is in full force with the multiple neon gas signs up on rooftops and building facades. Kudos to the production designer for a well-crafted world.

Where story is concerned, problems start creeping up. This is not Shakespeare, and I understand that completely. I actually quite enjoyed the fact that you don’t need to remember the previous film, nor any canon from the comic, to comprehend what is happening. It all begins with a graphic massacre at the home of an Italian mob family, setting the background for our villains and also leading us to the reasoning behind Frank Castle’s, aka The Punisher’s, motivation for revenge. Once that setup is out of the way, though, the story pretty much goes into a kill all the bad guys and save the innocent mother/daughter team caught in the middle. MacGuffins abound, (does anyone end up caring about that missing gangster money behind Jigsaw’s quest for blood?), and sadly unrealistic scenes, (Angela Donatelli has a gun pointed at Castle with tears streaming down her face and it all gets rectified by her daughter coming outside asking about a red pen? Seriously?), muck everything up. Even the absolute final second of the film is so out-there I left the theatre laughing rather than remembering the carnage I had witnessed. It was the out-of-place schlocky humor that left the indelible mark on me, not the offensive blood and gore.

Again, not having experience with the source material may be hindering my acceptance of the comic relief, but I almost hope it was intentional because the actors seem to ham it up across the board. To have them all just phone it in would be too much of a coincidence; it’ll help me sleep at night thinking the director carefully orchestrated it. Dash Mihok is usually good for a laugh in parts in Romeo + Juliet and “Pushing Daisies” so I don’t chide him too much for his amateurish feel here. He is the goof opposite Colin Salmon’s, a guy known more for his voice than acting prowess, serious as a heart-attack demeanor. Both seem like such two-dimensional creatures that it’s best to turn the other way and let it be. Julie Benz and even Wayne Knight attempt to be serious, so good effort on their parts, while Stevenson, as Castle, just turns the dial on lack of emotion to eleven. He’s one of two guys that really worked for me with his machine-like precision and utter lack of remorse, think Terminator only human, except for a sad-eyed stare when he does accidentally kill a federal agent. The other success you ask? Must be villain Jigsaw’s alter-ego Dominic West, right? Not so much. I’ve never much been a fan of his to begin with, but the weird accent and campiness don’t help his cause. It kind of works when he puts the prosthetics on, but only because he then becomes a true “villain”. No, the other acting gem comes from Doug Hutchison’s Looney Bin Jim, or LBJ for short. A caricature for sure, his insanity, kick boxing moves, and one-liners like “Did you know kidneys and apple sauce are a delicacy in Sweden?” hit with absolute success. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie couldn’t be as certain with it’s camp as he. The is it or isn’t it question takes too much away from the overall story, leaving moments of cringing, like that of the little girl grabbing Castle’s hand saying “Don’t go” before it cuts to her just walking away, that much harder to forget about.

Punisher: War Zone 5/10

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photography:
[1] Dash Mihok (“Det. Martin Soap,” left), Colin Salmon (“Paul Budiansky,” center) and Ray Stevenson (“Frank Castle,” right) in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Punisher: War Zone.
[2] Dominic West (“Jigsaw,” left) and Doug Hutchison (“Loony Bin Jim,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Punisher: War Zone.

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