This third stab at a Punisher movie takes the Incredible Hulk route of following up the last film (Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher) but pointedly not being a sequel to it. Hensleigh’s film came up with a new, overly-complicated origin for the skull-shirted vigilante, but War Zone reverts in minimal flashback to the simpler backstory of the comics – though it adds the detail that Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) was in a seminary before he became a special forces instructor, grief-stricken family man and terror of organised crime (the best line is his stray thought ‘Sometimes I would like to get my hands on God’). Following Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, Stevenson is the third blatantly non-Italian-American actor cast in the role (Jon Bernthal was the fourth): in comics, it’s always been a minor grace note that the Punisher shares his ethnicity with the goombahs who are his main opposition, but in the movies it’s always been a straight-up anglo blasting Italian mob guys, Chinese mob guys, Russian mob guys and black gang guys. All those factions are suitably represented and blown away here – an Irish-black parkour tumbling gang get especial attention, as one is exploded mid-stunt by a rocket-launcher, and a roomful of African-American gang-bangers are taken out with a single grenade before they even register as stereotypes. Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street) and screenwriters Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway follow Hensleigh by picking some suppporting characters from the comic (with Dash Mihok as comic relief detective Martin Soap and Wayne Knight as tech guy Micro) mostly from the Garth Ennis run, but come up with their own formulaic plot. Created as a Spider-Man villain and best seen as a morally equivocal supporting character to Daredevil or Captain America, the Punisher has always been a problematic protagonist – aside from vigilante genocidalism, he’s a humourless git with a gooey sentimental streak about his dead family.
Here, the plot hook is that among the 78 or so mafiosi he rubs out on a typical night is an undercover FBI agent (Romano Orzari), which means he’s tempted to give up his crusade, targeted by the dead man’s vengeful partner (Colin Salmon) and obliged to help out the widow (Julie Benz) and daughter (Stephanie Jansauskas) who remind him of his slain family. Again, the plot is driven by revenge – but, this time, it’s a Punisher victim out to get his own back, Handsome mobster Billy ‘the Beut’ Russoti (Dominic West) is shoved through a grinding bottle-bank by the Punisher and emerges with a patchwork Frankensteiny face and the nickname ‘Jigsaw’ (of course, owned in the movies by the Saw franchise – though the character has been about in comics for decades) and recruits his institutionalised whack-job brother ‘Loony Bin Jim’ (Doug Hutchison) to assist in wiping out the Punisher and his few known associates. In the context of the Marvel Universe (even their more violent, profane and cynical ‘Marvel MAX’ line) the Punisher doesn’t seem that far out as a concept, but all the movies have fallen a bit between the stools of the traditional, semi-realistic gangster shoot-out and the more fantastical dark-avenging superhero genre. By 2008, dark heroes were in – but the enmity of Castle and Jigsaw doesn’t have the Batman/Joker resonance, perhaps because Jigsaw (like Soap) is a loser who just gets deeper in shit every time he tries to get one up on Frank. West adopts a weird old-timey gangster accent and gets into ‘70s-look outfits as the mirror-phobic maniac, but Jigsaw is too far gone to seem a threat even when he has a little old lady’s head blasted to shreds. Benz, following Rambo, was getting stuck in a suffering-woman-in-gory-action-sequel rut, while the casting of so many Brits in key roles (also a habit of The Dark Knight) is just weird. Stevenson is neither better nor worse than Lundgren or Jane, though stuck in an unflattering, chinguard flak jacket with a skull which only glows intermittently. Alexander, a former world karate champion, is probably the only female action movie director who could beat the crap out of her cast: considering some of their performances, it’s a shame she didn’t.