Review: Punisher: War Zone Could Become the Showgirls of Comic-Book Movies

"The whole theater laughed out loud."


I'm a comic book fan. I'm a movie fan. I'm a comic-book-movie fan. After screening Punisher: War Zone, though, I'm considering lighting myself on fire on the front steps of Lionsgate's offices to protest the fact that they've made me want to stop being a fan of anything at all -- including a species, say humans, capable of creating something so god-awful. It's not like I ever thought the Dolph Lundgren direct-to-video piece of crap from 1989 was all that good, but I never laughed out loud at it. I laughed out loud at War Zone, though.

Hell, the whole theater laughed out loud. It started as nervous snickers. Then embarrassed chuckles. Then a chorus of enthusiastic laughter as one and all seemed to accept that they weren't supposed to find any of what they were seeing to be cool. In fact, it almost seemed like they were being begged by the filmmakers to laugh at their work with them. This was liberating, let me tell you, because I had spent the first third of the movie in stunned silence, unable to believe that the director, Lexi Alexander, had turned Marvel's most notorious homicidal vigilante into the straight man in a production as ludicrously imagined as either of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies.

Ray Stevenson, who replaces Thomas Jane after his Punisher bombed in 2004, embodies everything that Frank Castle was on the page, but seems to be the only person involved in the movie who read the comic book. Oh, Alexander stages a few amazing action sequences that are so over the top in their carnage that it's impossible not to cheer (the opening where Castle takes out a room full of gangsters, including the part where he snaps the hostess's neck twice, is especially well-done), but how does that make up for the carnival of colors that inexplicable drench every shot or the embarrassing performances delivered by just about every member of the cast?

I'm not joking about the performances either. These should be career-ending roles, especially for Dominic West who, yes, impressed us all on The Wire, but here, as scarred madman Jigsaw, prances about like Cesar Romero's the Joker while speaking like Vinnie Barbarino and dressing like Michael Jackson. Then there's Doug Hutchison who plays Jigsaw's diminutive brother, Loony Bin Jim, a cannibalistic nut-job who hops and flips about, cackles, and, yes, even makes cat noises because, I'm guessing, it was the improv take and, hey, it sounded like a good idea at the time. My personal favorite is TJ Storm, who appears as Maginty, an African-Irish meth head with dreadlocks and a gold tooth who, with two sidekicks, leaps about for no reason other than the fact that Parkour looked cool in other movies and, well, why not throw it into the shit stew, too, right? To make matters even worse, or maybe even better (depending on how you look at it), they're called the Urban Freeflow Gang. What?!

Perspective matters if you want to really enjoy War Zone. If you go into it expecting the hardcore shoot-'em-up comic-book movie you saw in the trailers and you've been hoping for ever since you started reading Punisher comic books, then you'll be greatly disappointed. You might even end up in a pillar of flames on Lionsgate's porch, thanks to the experience. I'm still in this camp, but I also realize it's entirely possible that the filmmakers actually set out to make a movie so bad that it crossed the threshold and became good again. You know, like Showgirls (Howard the Duck comes to mind, too). I'm not willing to stake my reputation on it just yet, but if this movie ends up a midnight-show classic in ten years, I wouldn't be shocked in the least. I might even show up to laugh at the movie again. That is, if I haven't died in any self-inflicted conflagrations before then. Sigh.

Grade: D-