'Punisher: War Zone'

Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, was last seen in 2004 unleashing his inner homicidal maniac on the mobsters who killed his wife and children. In the latest installment, "Punisher: War Zone," Frank is played by Ray Stevenson, taking over for the original's Thomas Jane, but he remains divinely ticked off. Gore-drenched actioner is guaranteed to draw fans of wretched excess like moths to a nuclear holocaust.

Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, was last seen in 2004 unleashing his inner homicidal maniac on the mobsters who killed his wife and children. In the latest installment, “Punisher: War Zone,” Frank is played by Ray Stevenson, taking over for the original’s Thomas Jane, but he remains divinely ticked off: “Sometime, I’d like to get my hands on God,” he mutters, still unafraid to take matters to the top. Gore-drenched actioner is guaranteed to draw fans of wretched excess like moths to a nuclear holocaust.

Based on the Marvel Comics hero, the Punisher is an ex-Marine who’s virtually indestructible, until the fight choreography says he’s not. And then anyone can take a whack at the big guy, even the psychopathic Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), whose gangster brother, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), is turned into Jigsaw, a kind of faux Joker with a face stitched like a baseball (all thanks to the Punisher, seen early on feeding Billy through a glass-recycling machine). Billy’s line delivery sounds like ‘The Sopranos’ ” Steven Van Zandt doing an impersonation of Robert Davi doing an impersonation of comedian Pat Cooper. Together, these brothers do less for the image of Italian-Americans than Chef Boyardee, a can of which seems to be exploding every three minutes.

Along with torrents of gore, “Punisher: War Zone” (scripted by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, all new to the franchise) has moments that are deliriously funny, because the violence is so awful and so casual: Frank is just as apt to blow someone’s face off his neck as he is to grumble darkly. His weapons collection is vast, well-oiled and large in caliber; his list of worthy corpses unending. Most of the time, helmer Lexi Alexander (“Green Street Hooligans”), replacing the first pic’s Jonathan Hensleigh, plays to “Punisher’s” fanboy base, but often enough, she lets slip that she’s in on the gag. A body is impaled on a spiked fence. OK, good. Then Frank uses the guy’s face as a step ladder. Even better.

Stevenson (“Rome’) plays Frank with appropriate solemnity, and just an inkling of introspection; too much, of course, and the whole executioner ethos comes tumbling down, which it does when Frank inadvertently kills an undercover FBI agent. This sets up the story’s faux-humanist slant, as Frank tries to protect the agent’s widow, Angela (Julie Benz), and daughter, Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas), from Jigsaw and Co. (When Grace puts her hand in Frank’s and says “Don’t go,” laughter is guaranteed.)

Among the other less-than-believable aspects of Frank’s life is his spacious underground lair — which, had this really been shot in New York instead of Vancouver and Montreal, would have been long ago rooted out by real estate developers and turned into condos. Also, that no one can find him, except when someone tries — like federal agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), who at one point simply walks up to Frank and places him under arrest.

Not that pic really needs it, but light comic relief is provided by NYPD behavioral psychologist Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), who plays Jimmy Olsen to the Punisher’s Superman, and the Punisher’s arms dealer (Wayne Knight, “Seinfeld”).

Production values are adequate, although the establishing shots of Manhattan, from which Punisher then enters some Canadian subway system, can be disconcerting. So is the pic’s glossy, reflective, flaring look, which may just be out to distract auds from the horrible goings-on.

Punisher: War Zone

U.S.- Germany

Production

A Lionsgate release (in U.S.), presented in association with Marvel Studios, of a Lionsgate, Valhalla Motion Pictures (U.S.)/MHF Zweite Academy Film (Germany) production, in association with SGF Entertainment. Produced by Gale Ann Hurd. Executive producers, Oliver Hengst, Ernst-August Schnieder, Ari Arad, Ogden Gavanski, Michael Paseornek, John Sacchi. Co-producers, Jack Murray, Gary Ventimiglia. Directed by Lexi Alexander. Screenplay, Nick Santora, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, based on Marvel's "Punisher" comicbook series.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Steve Gainer; editor, William Yeh; music, Michael Wandmacher, music supervisor, Dan Hubbert; production designer, Andrew Neskoromny; set decorators, Francois Senecal, Annika Krausz, Michel Clement, Andrew Law; costume designer, Odette Gadoury; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Claude LaHaye, Claude Hazanavicius; supervising sound editors, Gregory Hedgepath, Frank T. Smathers; sound designer, Hedgepath; visual effects supervisor, Robert Short; visual effects, 2G Digital Post, CIS London, XY&Z Visual Effects, Pixel Magic; stunt coordinator, Pat E. Johnson; assistant director, John McKeown; associate producers, Bill Johnson, Wolfgang Schamburg; casting, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith, Deborah Aquila. MPAA Rating: R. Reviewed at Bryant Park screening room, New York, Dec. 1, 2008. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Frank Castle - Ray Stevenson Billy/Jigsaw - Dominic West Loony Bin Jim - Doug Hutchison Paul Budiansky - Colin Salmon Micro - Wayne Knight Martin Soap - Dash Mihok Angela - Julie Benz Grace - Stephanie Janusauskas

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