For all its flaws, Punisher: War Zone will definitely make fans of the character happy. Lord knows they deserve it after two previous film versions that ranged from the actively dreadful to… well… the actively dreadful. Director Lexi Alexander has a keen grasp on Marvel's homicidal vigilante, and in star Ray Stevenson has found somebody who truly embodies him. With lined features as hard as granite framing the eyes of a freshly minted corpse, Stevenson feels positively born to play Frank Castle. The bar for these films has been set so low that the simple fact of nailing the title character should be cause for celebration among lovers of the Marvel comic.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is a severely mixed bag. Alexander brings a vibrant tone to the action and a well-placed sense of choreography, along with a palate from DP Steve Gainer that strikes the perfect balance between Taxi Driver grit and four-color fantasy. Arrayed against that are the usual sins of movies of this ilk: dreadful dialogue, contrived situations, and acting which isn't always top-of-the-line. Furthermore, none of that touches on the real complaints--the cheerful glorification of violence, the simplistic solutions to complex problems, and the niggling suspicion that War Zone is trying to discuss larger social issues it clearly isn't set up to handle. But that's par for the course with second-tier action films, and one presumes that the target audience doesn't care a whit. Those who find exploitation moviemaking distasteful have plenty of other options this awards-laden season. For the rest, it pays to set such hand-wringing aside and gauge War Zone solely for what it is.
And compared to its predecessors, it's practically Citizen Kane. Alexander takes her cue from the MAX series of comic books, discarding the Thomas Jane and Dolph Lundgren exercises for a completely fresh slate. Castle (Stevenson) has been acting as the Punisher for several years, wiping out entire crime families with his omnipresent arsenal of NRA-approved toys. The cops have set a task force to catch him, but they're more or less on his side, and even if they weren't, his hideout beneath the New York subway tunnels is as secure as Fort Knox. Which isn't to say he doesn't have problems. For starters, there's one of his former targets (Dominic West), who survived some impromptu surgery from an industrial glass crusher and now seeks revenge under the moniker of Jigsaw. Even more harrowing is the undercover FBI agent discovered among the piles of bodies with Castle’s ordnance in them--a genuinely good man with a widow and daughter left behind. Those twin stressors converge to push Frank towards the breaking point, where his one-man war on crime may come to an extremely messy end.
Alexander wastes comparatively little time with exposition, throwing the audience head-first into the action and assuming everyone knows the set-up. It's not hard for the uninitiated to catch up and the sharp pace set by the director lends the film a proper sense of punch. Gainer's work makes for gorgeous viewing as well: primary shades of yellow and blue light up the background while the foreground remains resolutely grimy. It provides War Zone with a viable identity, evoking the comics without sliding into undue self-awareness. Alexander also has a flair for black humor--aided by West, whose gloriously over-the-top bad guy evokes Dick Tracy in all the right ways--but never lets it dampen the necessarily harsh tone that the character requires.
Those assets come shackled with a number of liabilities, however, most of which are sadly typical for the genre. Dodgy scripting hampers War Zone's overall thrust, particularly during an uninspired climax and similar moments of by-the-numbers banality. Smaller subplots often grind their wheels, and the lack of exposition leads to a quietly clunky impression that never goes away. At times, it feels like walking into the middle of another movie… a fact compounded by the way it reveals Jigsaw's origins. The plot thread bears an unseemly resemblance to the creation of the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman--complete with a riff on Nicholson's "Jack is dead" line--and saddles the Punisher with the old "second-rate Bruce Wayne" critique that he really doesn't deserve.
It wouldn't be fair to categorize such shortcomings as lost potential. Movies like this aim for quick and dirty thrills--sorely missing during the holiday season--and cutting corners in the storytelling department comes with the territory. But Alexander has the right touch for this material and Marvel seems to have gotten the message that even their minor characters should stay true to their source. It feels like a waste to finally hand the Punisher over to the right filmmakers without bothering to provide a less derivative scenario. The fans probably won't care: there's nowhere to go but up and War Zone climbs higher than it may have had a right to. But going from awful to merely flawed still proves disappointing, and there's too much good stuff here to let the bad stuff off the hook.