Punisher: War Zone -- 3 stars

Misunderstood comic flick thrills fans, disgusts haters

Directed by Lexi Alexander. December 2008, USA. R: 103 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 12-6-08)

Remember that kinda crappy comic book movie that came out in 2004 where John Travolta played the sadistic villain and Thomas Jane played Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, an FBI agent-turned-vigilante with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Everest? A sequel starring Ray Stevenson came out this weekend. And most critics hated it, citing its over-the-top gore and lack of dialogue and character development.

Frankly, I think they missed something. As in, the entire concept of the Punisher. Of the three Punisher movies, this one stays truest to the source: a darkly humorous and endlessly violent comic book series about a man dead-set on feeding gangsters to the fishes in bite-sized pieces. War Zone pits Castle against Jigsaw—a mob boss whose nickname comes from his Frankensteinian face—and his brother Loony Bin Jim, whose vices include eating his victims’ internal organs. Our antihero finds assistance from Martin Soap, a goofball New York cop enamored with the Punisher’s “community service,” and Micro (a graying Wayne Knight, or Newman in Seinfeld), a tech whiz and weapons expert.

I’m going to use Roger Ebert’s negative review against him. He calls War Zone “one of the best-made bad movies I've seen,” citing its art direction, acting and special effects as positives. I agree. Nearly every frame glows with contrasting shades of neon light. In one beautiful shot in a church, director Lexi Alexander uses a long-angle lens to flatten the image of dozens of candle flames against Castle’s head, creating a blurry grid.

So why does Ebert ultimately rate the film poorly?

“Its only flaw is that it's disgusting.”

Listen, Rog. If you don’t like seeing heads vaporized by gunshots, necks stabbed with broken wine glasses and skulls opened by saws in a Punisher flick, that’s your own problem.