‘Punisher: War Zone’: Story takes back seat to nonstop brutal action

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 4, 2008 2:08pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

He’s called the Punisher for a reason, and you don’t go to a movie called “Punisher: War Zone” expecting lace doilies and high tea.

Even with those expectations, “Punisher” is a brutal outing, notable for its many head-crushings and torso-impalings. Although laden with laughable dialogue, “Punisher” delivers action in huge helpings.

Dolph Lundgren played the Punisher in a 1989 movie, and Thomas Jane took the role for a considerably higher-profile 2004 picture. Now the part falls to Ray Stevenson, from HBO’s “Rome” series, a British actor with a strong sense of menace.

Having lost his own family in a mob-related wipeout, Frank Castle turned himself into the Punisher, a vigilante who goes after the bad guys on his own. The movie gets its moral dilemma after he accidentally kills a federal agent during a shootout.

While nursing his angst, Castle has his plate full with more immediate problems. He’s responsible for putting gangster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti in a giant glass-crushing machine (one of the few times that recycling has played a role in a superhero movie).

His face horribly disfigured by the incident, Russoti is reborn as Jigsaw, a revenge-minded archvillain. He’s given a juicy, swaggering performance by Dominic West (from “300” and “The Wire”), who correctly sensed that cartoon acting was the way to go in this one.

So did Doug Hutchison, no stranger to psycho roles; He plays Jigsaw’s brother, the aptly named Loony Bin Jim. These two actors might seem a bit, shall we say, off the leash, were it not for the fact that the rest of the movie is similarly deranged.

“Punisher: War Zone” is directed by Lexi Alexander, who started her career as a martial-arts practitioner and stuntwoman. This could explain the convincing bloodshed. Even by the standards of current action-movie violence, this one’s got an incredibly high carnage rate.

In the midst of all this mayhem, people occasionally have to speak, and the movie crashes to earth when they do. Alexander has a good sense of close-quarters brawling, but not so much for conversation.

Recent Marvel successes such as “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” have tried to join together their different story lines, at least marginally. Don’t look for anything similar here: “Punisher: War Zone” exists in an isolated pocket of craziness.

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