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After hunting down and killing hundreds of violent criminals, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, faces his most deadly foe yet: Jigsaw.
You'd be forgiven for having a sense of double deja vu at the sight of a new Punisher movie hitting the cinemas with "Punisher: War Zone." After all, two previous incarnations have already found their way to the big screen starring, respectively, Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane.
"War Zone" does away with the iconic backstory of Frank Castle during the credits - good cop turned engine of revenge by the murder of his family. We pick up several years later, after the Punisher has racked up an impressive body count, and in the middle of his latest assault against the crime bosses of New York.
In the first fifteen minutes or so, the Punisher seemed like a B-movie with an A-level budget: not so well paced, and just a little clunky.
But moving further in, both the action and the fun kicked into high gear, and the Punisher really started to sizzle.
There is a lot of terrific innovation here: in a genre pretty much saturated so to speak in blood and gore, this flick finds new ways to kill and does it in brilliantly bloody and often humorous sequences. The casting is particularly strong -- every face is unique and nearly every character memorable.
The new Castle is Ray Stevenson (Rome). Physically, he's awesome, in the true sense of the word, like Liev Schreiber on steroids. He's not much of an actor, but sometimes his awkward, overwrought delivery ends up laying the cheese on just right, like when his impromptu monologuing about his painful past ends up used as a distraction while he whales someone in the face.
Director Lexi Alexander is that rarest of birds -- a female action director -- and probably better known as a world karate and kickboxing champion. Her action sequences are impeccable and unique, combining fast edits with a firm hand so that you're never lost in space, the way you might have found yourself, for example, in the latest Bond film.
But she gives her female characters much shorter shrift. While little Grace Donatelli, daughter of an FBI agent killed in error by Castle, is fully fleshed, her mother (played by a brunette Julie Benz, better known for her role in "Dexter") is left with a thankless and undeveloped part to play.
Dominic West (The Wire) is terrific and hilarious as the mutilated Mafioso who dreams of punishing the Punisher, and Britain's Colin Salmon, who had a recurring role in the Brosnan Bonds, proves a good match for Stevenson. There's also a surprisingly sensitive turn from Wayne Knight, who demonstrates there's a lot more to him than playing arch-nemesis to Jerry Seinfeld and being eaten by dinosaurs.
The tongue-in-cheek humor never gets out of control and takes over, but there are great little touches, like the irony of the Punisher annihilating a crowd of gangsters in the recycling plant they run, having gone a little greener than in Tony Soprano's waste management days.
The make-up is really good too, and good close up which is a nice change from prosthetics and blood effects that seem to scream "Look how clever I am!" When the doctor says he's stitched Billy Russoti's face back together with horse hide, you really believe it.Although the few sentimental moments get a bit maudlin, there are enough really spectacular set pieces to more than make up for a little clunkiness.
From the opening shots of Castle making his own ammo to the final battles, Punisher: War Zone is just what an action film should be. In tone, it's a little reminiscent of the mix of devastation and human carnage with sly humor that made "Robocop" such a success. All in all, probably not a date movie, but a great night out.
3 stars out of 4~