Ray Stevenson -- Brylcreem and gadgets, but no charm.
By Barry Paris Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The solution to a thorny two-pronged problem with Marvel Comics superheroes is so simple, really: intensive, long-term group therapy for revenge issues. This could significantly reduce the shocking number of (1) homicides that occur wherever they tread and (2) deplorable films required to chronicle the carnage.
Latest of the latter is "Punisher: War Zone," in which vengeful vigilante Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) continues his one-man battle against the mobsters who wiped out his wife and kids during a family picnic. In the nuanced opening, Frank crashes a "beat the rap" mob party and slaughters everybody around the dinner table -- except gangster Billy Russoti (Dominic West), whom Frank recycles in an eco-friendly bottle-sorter. But one of the murdered mafiosi turns out to be an undercover FBI agent.
This prompts the dead Fed's ex-partner (Colin Salmon) to join the NYPD Task Force charged with bringing the Punisher to justice. Russoti recovers with revenge on his mind and more hideous Frankensteinian stitches on his face than on a Major League baseball. Under the apt new alias "Jigsaw," Russoti and his brother LBJ (Loony Bin James, entertainingly played by Doug Hutchison) recruit not just a few bad men but a whole equal-opportunity army of black, Asian and Hispanic psychopaths, determined to be all the evil they can be.
But Frank now suffers from collateral-damage remorse, resolving to hang up his Berettas and quit the vigilante-justice biz. Turns out, he's Sensitive. Aren't we all? Every thought of his own kids triggers flashbacks of them in the pastoral form of anti-depressant pill commercials -- until Jigsaw takes the dead Fed's wife and daughter hostage. Thus forced back into battle, the Punisher faces off against Jigsaw's forces to save the innocent damsels he put in distress.
Oh, and there's also a bioterrorist plot against all of New York City.
The Punisher character first appeared in Spider-Man comics of 1974 as an ex-cop who lives in the subway sewers and acts as judge, jury and executioner of unpunished criminals. Since then, he has become the star of two films (1989 and 2004), plus a popular PlayStation2 video game, whose promoters enthuse: "You are awarded points depending on how efficient you are and how much variety you use when killing."
Robotic Ray Stevenson in the title role is given Bond-Connery-type Brylcream, gadgets and music to work with, but they're poor substitutes for wit or charm.
The role of Microchip, his mother-fixated enabler and accomplice, is played by Wayne Knight -- aka Newman, my favorite horrible character on "Seinfeld."
Clumsy director Lexi Alexander (a woman is responsible!), plus writers too numerous and inept to be named, let the script degenerate into your garden variety hostage situation, with two dumb chicks tied to a pillar and messing up the big boy's best-laid plans.
The perversely fascinating sociology of this stuff derives from somewhere in the mist of Bronson's "Death Wish" and Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" seminal sweet-revenge franchises, but what's most important here is the sadistic creativity of the gore: the challenge to come up with novel new ways to kill people in one sudden move. Asked to name their "favorite kills," Punisher comics bloggers cite the hanging of a villain by his intestines on a tree and the feeding of mobsters to Piranhas and sharks.
I hesitate to weigh in on how faithful or unfaithful this flick is to its comic-book source. That's like inquiring whether "Triumph of the Will" is faithful to "Mein Kampf." Let's just say, keep this type of film (and character) in mind when you're looking for the next day-after-Columbine-massacre analysis.
In addition to the violence, by the way, there are "F" words in triple digits, and the photography and F/X are up to snuff films in every way.