It’s no secret that Marvel Comics writer Gerry Conway was thinking of Pinnacle’s hugely popular paperback vigilante Mack Bolan—aka the Executioner—when he created the character of Frank Castle as a foe for Spider-Man in 1974’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #129. Rough, taciturn, and intimidating in his all-black threads with ghostly white skull logo, the Punisher soon became one of Marvel’s most popular characters—nearly as popular as Spidey himself. He even made it to the big screen before Spider-Man in 1989’s THE PUNISHER, a reasonably entertaining Dolph Lundgren vehicle that was made with too little money and too little inspiration.
Surprisingly, Lionsgate’s first crack at the material, 2004’s THE PUNISHER, which stayed much closer to Castle’s comic-book pedigree than the New World picture, was not a major hit, despite Thomas Jane’s believable performance and Jonathan Hensleigh’s smart direction that played down CGI mayhem in favor of old-fashioned bloodshed. For the sequel, last year's PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, now out on Blu-ray and DVD, Lionsgate hedged its bets, lowering the budget to ensure some level of profit margin and capitalizing on the surprising success of its ultra-violent RAMBO sequel by ramping the mayhem to an absurd level.
Directed by German karate champion and stuntwoman Lexi Alexander, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE finds both hero and baddie out for revenge. Castle (ROME's Ray Stevenson), of course, despises the Mafia after they were responsible for the murders of his family. Handsome mobster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (THE WIRE's Dominic West) blames the Punisher for the hideously scarred face he earned in a bloody showdown against him. Now the hideously scarred Jigsaw, Russoti busts his even crazier brother Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, previously the terrifying Tooms on THE X-FILES) out of prison and lays siege to New York City.
Among Jigsaw’s victims is Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz, also in RAMBO), the sister of an FBI agent accidentally killed by Castle during his raid on Russoti’s lair. Castle contemplates retiring because of his collateral damage, but is forced to reconsider after Jigsaw captures Angela and her daughter.
No question about it. Alexander has delivered a raucous, wild action movie with moments of wry humor reminiscent of the lean programmers Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris used to make in the 1980s. Tall, stoic Stevenson is completely believable as Marvel’s two-gun man of action and is a startling counterbalance to the cackling eccentrics played by West and Hutchison, who look and act like leftovers from a Dick Tracy mystery. Stunts, shootouts, and fisticuffs are first-rate. Most surprising is the film’s crisp, colorful production design that complements and doesn’t overwhelm the sharp action scenes.
The Punisher punches right through a guy’s skull, blasts a Parkour killer in mid-air with a bazooka, and shoots about ninety mobsters while twirling upside down from a chandelier. Take those Matt Damon Jason Boredom movies and ram them up your ass. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is a balls-to-the-wall action flick that makes other comic-book movies look like kiddie matinees.