Lionsgate’s Punisher: War Zone shares with the studio’s flagship Saw franchise not only a dimly lit, puke-green and fetid-yellow aesthetic but also, absurdly enough, a villain who goes by the name Jigsaw. Those similarities don’t extend to intricate death traps, though Lexi Alexander’s film is nonetheless a torturous affair, save for those moments when it’s just comically bad. Technically speaking, this is, after 1989’s Dolph Lundgren laugher and 2004’s Thomas Jane snoozer, the second cinematic do-over for Marvel Comics’s war hero-turned-vigilante. Yet aside from featuring a one-note Ray Stevenson in the titular role and hearty servings of excessive bloodshed, there’s little to truly distinguish it from its cruddy predecessors.
Determined to fight the Big Apple’s mob syndicates, Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, takes justice into his own hands, which is a euphemistic way of saying that he stoically decapitates, knifes, punches the brains out of and guns down all manner of (generally minority and/or ethnically stereotypical) criminals. His chief adversary is the facially mutilated mafioso Jigsaw (Dominic West), whose Frankenstein scars are the Punisher’s doing and who has not a single evil scheme or witty quip to his derivative name. Frank’s faith in the righteousness of his work is meant to be shaken by his accidental murder of an undercover F.B.I. agent, but the glee with which Alexander orchestrates her antihero’s urban genocide turns any moral handwringing into a laughable charade. Well, that and the fact that the wife of the deceased—who, along with her daughter, embraces the Punisher as a paternal protector—eventually lets him know that her hubby thought the vigilante was “one of the good guys,” a statement that definitively clears up the story’s nonexistent ambiguity. Every sentimental interaction between the Punisher and the dead cop’s little girl is rife with unintentional hilarity, only to be topped by a shot of an acrobatic crook being blasted to smithereens, while in mid-cartwheel from one rooftop to another, with a rocket.
Proving that the third time’s not always the charm, the embarrassingly silly War Zone should, with any luck, end the grim character’s celluloid fate. Unless, of course, Lionsgate and Marvel are willing to pounce on the awesomely cheesy clash-of-titans sequel idea floated by the Punisher when, while visiting church, he growls, “Sometimes, I’d like to get my hands on God.”