Review: New 'War Zone' Best of The Punisher Films. But...

Here is the good news for Frank Castle fans. Punisher: War Zone is far and away the best movie based on Marvel Comic' vigilante anti-hero The Punisher to date.

Of course, anyone who has cable-surfed upon the 1989 Dolph Lundgren embarrassment or was re-gifted the DVD of 2004’s Thomas Jane vehicle The Punisher knows that’s a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

War Zone is a relentlessly grim and unapologetically violent mess of a movie that pays tribute to comic book creators Garth Ennis and Tim Bradstreet's dark, twisted take on the character as well as give the cinematic finger to the first two films. But it’s still not very good.

Whereas the last Punisher movie was set in Tampa, this one takes place in New York City (although not much appears to have actually been shot here). There isn't a palm tree in sight. Frank Castle's come home.

Here, Castle’s origin (told in brief flashbacks) is faithful to the one in the comics. A picnic in Central Park with his wife and kids, they stumble upon a gangland execution and are taken out. Only Frank survives, to wage his own one-man war on crime.

During one scene deep into the film, an FBI agent asks a detective in a room crammed with thousands of cold case files, which ones are related to the Punisher. “They all are,” says the detective.

Ray Stevenson (“Rome”) has the right size and look of Frank Castle. He doesn’t say a word until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, and when Stevenson does finally talk, you realize why we were getting the silent treatment. He can’t hide his Irish accent! It pops in and out to the point of distraction.

The story begins with the Punisher all but wiping out the last big Mafia family. The only one left is pretty boy Billy Russoti, played by Dominic West (“300”). Horribly disfigured in a piece of factory machinery after trying to escape from Castle, Russoti quickly loses whatever marbles he has left and in one of those painfully obvious moments clumsy filmmakers use to get their points across, decides to rename himself ‘Jigsaw'.

Castle meanwhile, is ready to hang up his skull shirt after accidentally killing an FBI undercover agent during one of his mob raids. Of course, the agent had a young daughter and beautiful wife (Julie Benz), so a guilt-ridden Punisher resolves to keep them safe from Jigsaw.

Also along for the ride is Micro. Wayne Knight fits the bill perfectly here as Frank’s arms supplier and intel provider. The film could have used more of his casual banter with Frank. That’s what made Micro so important to the Punisher comics of the early 90s. Alas, here the character is underused.

As Jigsaw, West - a Brit - fares even worse than Stevenson at hiding his accent. Either his agent has a great sales pitch or the casting director of War Zone really likes “The Wire.” Why else would you cast an English actor who can’t disguise his accent for such a distinct role as a New York crime lord?

West doesn’t help his cause by cribbing every single bit of Hollywood Goombah Gangster shtick for his role.

Jigsaw’s bad guy mojo is actually lifted completely by his off-his-rocker brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison). He’s the kind of guy who, before breaking out of the sanitarium, stops for a snack. And by snack I mean the liver and intestines of the hospital attendant.

Remember how Jeffrey Wright stole the bad guy spotlight from Christian Bale in the remake of “Shaft,” forcing the director to reshoot the ending to focus more on Wright’s character, Peoples Hernandez? That’s what should have happened here. Looney Bin Jim was much more interesting than this Jigsaw. Too bad director Lexi Alexander didn’t see that or the many holes in the screenplay.

Then again, she had other things on her mind, like saving her job.

Alexander was reportedly fired from the project this past summer during postproduction. Whether or not it’s true, her name is still on the credits. And she does craft some clever action sequences, such as the mob mansion massacre at the start of the picture.

The bloodbath at the end of the film in an abandoned hotel (a nice tip of the hat to Tim Bradstreet) gives “Rambo’s” big finish a run for its money in terms of sheer sadistic mayhem. Body parts explode, bullets tear down walls, heads crack walls…the violence reaches almost cartoonish levels. Castle shoots, stabs, and even rocket-launches his way through a huge chunk of the New York underworld.

War Zone features people getting their necks punctured by wine glasses, elderly people getting machete-d in half, internal organs being ripped out by hand, and human bodies literally being exploded onscreen. It revels in its goriness. Yet the film still received an ‘R’ rating, from the same people who nearly gave ’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” an ‘NC-17’. Hmmm…

With a body count teetering close to triple digits and a handful of scenes that will force you to look away from the screen, Punisher: War Zone is the Punisher Max the diehards have been waiting for (FYI, the Marvel Knights logo shows up in the opening credits).

Will they like it? Only if they can ignore the lazy script and the sub-par acting. For those who don’t follow Frank Castle’s comic book exploits, War Zone doesn’t figure to be high on their holiday movie season watch list.

Because despite improving on the first two Punisher films, the third time for Frank Castle was not the charm. In fact, it wasn’t much good at all.

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