The third attempt to kick-start a franchise based on the Marvel Comics Punisher character, Punisher: War Zone is probably the best of the bunch, but that isn’t saying much. Plugging a violent, implacable vigilante into a world populated by costumed superheroes provides an interesting sort of contrast, but in the movies, ex-Special Forces operative (or ex-cop, or ex-FBI agent—take your pick) Frank Castle is just another grim action hero bent on violent revenge. The 1989 Punisher movie settled for a generic action plot and C-level star Dolph Lundgren, while the 2004 rendition tried to take the character seriously, casting Thomas Jane in the lead role and John Travolta as the mobster villain. War Zone sort of splits the difference, giving new star Stevenson (of HBO’s Rome) a handful of introspective moments while focusing mostly on exaggerated violence and gore.
No one is really interested in the Punisher’s tortured soul, so the cartoonish route is probably the best one to take, and director Alexander, a former kickboxing and karate champion, knows her way around an action sequence. The action is so absurd that it frequently crosses into camp, which may well have been the intention; it’s hard to watch the Punisher literally punch a guy’s face off without assuming that the director knew it would be funny.
Slightly less funny is West’s performance as main villain Jigsaw, a sadistic gangster with a mangled face. West’s New York accent is beyond over the top, and he overacts so strenuously that you’re worried he’ll pull a muscle. At times his awful/awesome performance pulls the movie into the so-bad-it’s-good realm, but more often it’s just irritating. And since Stevenson’s Punisher is stoic in the extreme (he doesn’t even speak a word until 25 minutes into the movie), West is often all we get.
Jigsaw is just one element of the film that gleefully departs from any semblance of realism; Alexander also emphasizes garish, colorful production design and oversaturated images to give the movie a surreal tone. It’s closer to a comic book than either of the previous adaptations, but still too much like a cruddy action movie to completely work.