Punisher fans, I’m afraid War Zone is as good as we’re going to get. Marvel’s franchise reboot, the first released under the mature-audience Marvel Knights imprint, has the right idea, anyway. Despite rumors that the film would be cut to secure a PG-13 rating, War Zone is a decidedly hard R — one of the most brutal and gory mainstream comic adaptations since Sin City. And vigilante Frank Castle (Stevenson) is the sort of vengeful, remorseless Punisher we demand, the NRA card-carrier’s Platonic ideal.
After his family is murdered by the Cosa Nostra, ex-Marine Castle gets revenge not only by killing their killers, but by declaring a personal war on crime. Decked out in skull-emblazoned body armor, Castle guns down every Mafioso he comes across, discharging automatic weapon fire at the slightest hint of a va fangul. Fortunately for Castle, finding and taking out all those mobster types really is just about that easy because, in War Zone’s world, every gangster is an apparent graduate of Joe Pesci’s Goomba Academy. Class valedictorian Billy “The Beaut” Russoti (West, The Wire’s Detective Jimmy McNulty, in a role that will probably get him a few angry letters from the National Italian American Foundation) has the head cock, the shoulder shrug, and the bada-binging down cold, so it should be no surprise that he’s poised to take over the family business when Castle perforates most of the rest of Russoti’s family. His stay at the top is extremely short, though. Within a few minutes of Russoti’s takeover, Castle has thrown him into a glass crusher (told you he’s ruthless). Russoti survives, though his face has been completely ripped off (told you it’s gory). Renaming himself Jigsaw, the horribly disfigured gangster sets out to get his revenge on Castle, in the most predictable and uninteresting way possible.
Imperfect as it was, this summer’s Incredible Hulk managed to redeem the franchise from Ang Lee hell, but War Zone is ultimately just further proof that Punisher movies shouldn’t be made — and I say that as the owner of vinyl protected copies of a Spider-Man #129 reprint and freaking Archie Meets the Punisher. His ultra-right-wing nihilism is best when its violence is left completely unchecked, offset only by sick black humor, a balancing act that’s apparently beyond the capabilities of film director/martial artist Lexi Alexander, who mostly treats the material as late-night action. Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez could probably pull it off, but this triple-cursed standard-issue revenge tale won’t draw top talent anytime soon. With the awful-looking Spirit still to come this month, followed by the questionable Watchmen this spring and sure-to-suck Thor in 2010, War Zone might very well mark the beginning of comic-book-film overkill.