>> Punisher War Zone (5.5/10)

punisher war zone“Let me axe you a question,” says Doug Hutchison as the villainous Loony Bin Jim, seconds before repeatedly bringing an axe down into the body of a hapless accomplice of vigilante Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) in Punisher War Zone.  Later, when Castle aka The Punisher comes across his wounded buddy, he begs of him, “Don’t die on me!”  The camera then cuts to the victim, an impossible and hilarious mess of blood and guts and severed limbs.  And I giggled.

I giggled a lot during this movie.  If the suits at Lionsgate or Marvel want a review pull-quote, I’ll offer up one right now:  Punisher War Zone is the best Punisher film yet!  Not as dull as the Dolph Lundgren version, not as misguided as the Thomas Jane incarnation, the moment Stevenson appears as Punisher, striking a bright pink road flare before killing the ever-lovin’ holy hell out of a mafia family in a dozen different ways, you realize that you are actually watching THE Punisher in action for the very first time, despite two previous films that claim they’re based on the same source material (comic books) as this glorious piece of trash cinema.  The downside is the film never really gets any better than that opening introduction.

Dominic West plays an untouchable gangster who takes the name Jigsaw after Castle tosses him into a glass-crushing recycling machine during a heated shoot-out–a chaotic event that sees Castle accidentally taking the life on an undercover FBI agent.  Jigsaw spends most of his time negotiating some kind of vague deal involving Russians, terrorists, and bio-weapons, while also plotting to hunt down the widow (Julie Benz) of the mole in his group and kill her.  Castle considers hanging up the old skull vest due to the accidental shooting, but, and I don’t think this gives anything away, thinks better of it, and decides to just kill a whole bunch of people instead, including Jigsaw and his cronies.

Punisher War Zone is almost a brilliant parody of hyper-stylized action films, but there’s still too strong of a desire by the creative forces behind the film, including director Lexi Alexander, to pander to the proto-neanderthals that have kept Punisher skull t-shirts on the racks of Wal-Mart for the past fifteen years.  Amazingly, the movie is at its smartest when it gets really, really dumb.  Conversely, the parts of the film that aspire to being like a normal action movie are the parts that end up being truly idiotic.  This probably won’t make any sense until you see it, but trust me.  When I giggled, the film earned the giggle, for better or worse, but when it aims for being legitimately cool, I was almost always bored in a “c’mon, let’s get on with it” way.  You want the ridiculous dialogue, not Wayne Knight as Microchip.

I would’ve preferred that they went all-out with the silliness, instead of holding back a little, but the one area in which they don’t hold back is the violence.  Heads pop like water balloons as Castle dishes out vengeance with a cartoonish, grotesque strength.  Stevenson is at his most believable when he keeps his mouth shut (due primarily to his weak American accent), stomping through neon streets in full riot gear with dead-set eyes and every conceivable ballistics weapon known to man strapped to his body.  West makes an interesting foil as Jigsaw, comic book-y in all the worst ways, like a rejected Dick Tracy rogue bearing a New Yawk accent with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face.  The scene in which Jigsaw gives a speech in front of a waving American flag to a group of African-American thugs, all of them holding their guns sideways, brought tears to my eyes.   Tears of laughter.

This is either a “good” bad movie or a “bad” good movie, one of the two, take your pick.  It’s got “guilty pleasure” written all over it for sure, but be careful, because the guilty WILL be punished.

5.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

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