Death Wish done as an ultra-violent superhero saga for the arty graphic-novel set. That's the low concept behind Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, a U.S. commando who turns himself into a vigilante killing machine after his wife and two kids become collateral damage to a gangland execution in a public park. The Castles, of course, were having a picnic - which raises the question, what causes fans of grisly hipster comic books to ooh and aah over story pegs that would make their stomachs turn in a Spielberg movie?
A square-cut fellow who overworks the sadness in his eyes, Stevenson (who plays Titus Pullo in HBO's Rome) takes over the role from Baltimore-born Thomas Jane. But this movie retains a mild Charm City connection with the casting of The Wire's Dominic West as a narcissistic Mafioso whose face gets smashed in a glass-crushing machine. He turns into the Frankenstein look-alike Jigsaw, who's about as interesting as Batman's Two-Face would be with just one face.
The movie's hook is that Castle, when annihilating a mob family, commits some collateral damage of his own, killing an undercover FBI man and leaving a mother and daughter without a husband and father. These virtuous females land in Jigsaw's gun-sights when he tries to retrieve the money he thought he was giving to a fellow slime-bag, not a Fed on a wire.
All this is merely an excuse for grotesque mayhem, but with none of the comic spontaneity and invention of, say, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2.The director, Lexi Anderson, a female world karate and kickboxing champion, adopts a sick-joke tone, but simply uses spiked skulls and speared throats and torsos as exclamation points - and flesh-shredding bullets as fatal periods marking the end of thousands of plug-uglies.
The film is nothing if not lower-depths chic. (It includes a homage to Scarface with the motto, "The World is Yours.") Jigsaw's brother, Loony Bin Jim, is a Grade Z cousin to Hannibal the Cannibal, making up in appetite and mixed-martial-arts expertise what he lacks in education and culture. The script contains a sketchy Homeland Security subplot. When Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim recruit an army of bloodthirsty anti-social misfits, Alexander struggles to turn the sequence into a parody of Iraq war recruitment. But even as Bizarro burlesques, these scenes are as tasteless as flatbread.
All Alexander proves in Punisher: War Movie is that a martial-arts-trained woman can make a film just as stupid, coarse and numbing as any muscle man. Compared to Punisher: War Zone, a midlevel Schwarzenegger film like Commando is The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Departed rolled into one.
Punisher: War Zone
(Lionsgate) Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West. Directed by Lexi Alexander. Rated R for pervasive over-the-top violence. Time 107 minutes. No stars.