“Punisher: War Zone”
Lionsgate
At the Quality 16 and Showcase

3 out of 5 stars

“Punisher: War Zone” is one of the most malicious, moronic and masochistic films to ever be released this side of a “Saw” movie. Its gore necessitates barf bags and the protagonist merits forgiveness when he doesn’t deserve it. The villains smack of racial ignorance and big guns are glorified in a way that would make even Clint Eastwood blush. It’s comic book revenge at its worst.

Yet, despite its abhorrent nastiness, this is one hell of a show.

Fast and mean, “War Zone” is a guilty pleasure of the highest order. A candy-colored fantasia of gore and crazy shit, this is the stupider, funnier side of comic book adaptations. It’s just fun.

Based on the scandalous Marvel comics, this is the third iteration of the skull-shirted vigilante’s war on crime. Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson, TV’s “Rome”) is the Punisher, a victim of gang violence that left his wife and two children slaughtered. Five years on the job, and far from being done, Frank is the ultimate gangbuster. Cops let him slip by, and the feds want him locked up. No one can touch him because he’s just too good.

But there are two main stories here. Yes, “War Zone” isn’t entirely wanton revenge. Frank first accidentally creates an arch-nemesis, named Jigsaw (Dominic West, TV’s “The Wire”). Why’s he called Jigsaw? Well, remember the scene in the 1989 “Batman” where Jack Nicholson is dropped in a vat of acid? Here it’s a glass crusher, and it’s very intentional — and very graphic.

Frank also screws up and accidentally kills a federal agent. In the wake of the accident, he makes an effort to atone by trying to make good with the wife of his wrong target. Heart-felt clearly, but these are not what “Punisher” stories are all about.

“War Zone” is no exception to the nonsensical, over-the-top violence other “Punisher” stories have perpetuated. Done in a guilt-free, pop-minded manner, “War Zone” is everything the comics are about. Frank is a spectacularly efficient mass murderer, and were he not the lead character, this would pretty much be a slasher flick. Yet it’s not meant to make us sympathetic with Frank. We just can’t help but be amused by his efficiency.

Directed with extra cheese by Lexi Alexander (“Green Street Hooligans”), the point of this film is to laugh uncomfortably at the graphic violence: makeshift stabbings, kidneys eaten and faces turned to roast beef. (Don’t worry, it’s funnier onscreen).

Normally this kind of violence would make even the most hardened people cringe. It’s brutal. But the ploy here is to not take anything seriously. “War Zone” works as a parody of itself by the end, and in that respect, it ain’t half bad. The repetitive glee in Frank Castle’s rampage certainly has the foundation for a great drinking game.

Considering the top-notch production values despite the budget, clever effects, quick pacing and general willingness of the cast and crew to not take themselves too seriously, this is much better than it should be. “War Zone” makes a fine B-movie. Far more fun than the dark 2004 “Punisher,” and far better than the 1989 Dolph Lundgren “Punisher,” “War Zone” is furious fancy.

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