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Punisher: War Zone

Faster, Punisher! Kill! Kill!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

To complain that Punisher: War Zone lacks subtlety would be, I fear, to miss the point entirely. During a year overcrowded with superheroes who appear surprisingly self-aware, enough to recognize and fear the darkness in their own souls, Frank Castle seems an archaic throwback, a gunslinger who kills on a whim and moves on. He shoots the Bad Guys -- most of the time -- so the police leave him alone. But the trail of colorfully mutilated bodies he leaves in his wake suggests more a serial killer who enjoys his work than a tortured vigilante driven by the need to inflict justice.

Castle has always occupied a position of moral ambiguity compared to fellow comic-book icons, perhaps because his only superpower, if he can be said to have one, is his rage. His family slain by the mob, he packs up his artillery and hits the road, hungry for revenge. That might explain why 2004’s Punisher, starring Thomas Jane, was such a sullen, humorless affair. War Zone, which is less a sequel than a re-imagining, finds Ray Stevenson (of HBO’s “Rome”) donning Castle’s black body armor for an adventure that is more more campy than Jane's and, unexpectedly, far more violent.

Fans of the slasher genre have complained in recent years that filmmakers have toned down the violence (and, in doing so, compromised the integrity of movies like Alien Vs. Predator and this year’s Prom Night remake) to achieve the coveted PG-13 rating. Not here. While Punisher: War Zone is not a typical slasher film, it has more in common with Hellraiser than Hellboy, which should come as welcome news to those with a taste for exploding skulls, graphic decapitations and cannibalistic feasts.

The plot: Vicious mob captain Billy Russoti (Dominic West) takes over the family business just minutes before Castle tosses him headfirst into a glass compactor. Undeterred and hideously disfigured -- his face resembling a lattice pie – and Russoti assumes the mantle of Jigsaw, a hammy, Joker-esque (think Nicholson, not Ledger) super-villain, and springs his kidney-chomping brother (Doug Hutchison, of The Green Mile) from the psych ward. Terror ensues in a city purported to be New York, though well-traveled viewers may recognize fleeting glimpses of the Montréal subway system.

Does it really matter what happens next? Punisher fans and the uninitiated alike might well guess that Castle, a taciturn enforcer who displays no mercy -- ever -- cleans up the brothers’ bloody mess by creating one of his own. (“Who punishes you?” someone asks him, quite reasonably.) There is no hope for this man’s redemption, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I’ve made Punisher: War Zone sound aggressively unpleasant, it really isn’t. Dumb? Yes. Gratuitous? Absolutely. Critics who have savaged the film, of whom there are many, have cited the movie’s most memorable line -- “I guess I’ll put you out of my misery” -- as a neat summation of the viewing experience. Hardly. If anything, the film is so insanely over the top, so unapologetically disconnected from reality, that it becomes a sort of manic, hyper-violent comedy. Whether it was intended that way is anybody’s guess, and though I have my doubts that Punisher: War Zone earns the right to be described as satire, well, at least it’s not boring.