"Punisher: War Zone" is everything its predecessor was not: namely, fun to watch. With Thomas Jane in the lead as vigilante Frank Castle, 2004's "The Punisher" held promise, but that's it — done in by a so-hammy-he's-glazed John Travolta as the villain and a gritty bleakness that drained the Marvel Comics property of its punch.
No such problem here, with the entire cast and most of the production crew replaced, making "War Zone" Marvel's second reboot of the year, following "The Incredible Hulk." Like that big, green machine, the slate-cleaning pays off.
Ray Stevenson ("King Arthur," TV's "Rome") takes over as Castle, who's been keen on killing crime syndicates ever since his wife and kids were murdered for witnessing a mob execution while picnicking several years earlier. He dresses all in black, owns a virtual armory and lives in one of those dank, enormous industrial spaces that nary a homeless person seems to know about.
His latest target is Billy "The Beaut" Russoti (Dominic West, "300," TV's "The Wire"), a sleazy, greasy gangster eager to rise the ranks to the top of the criminal underworld. One night, while Castle infiltrates Russoti's recycling plant, he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent, but succeeds in throwing Russoti into the glass grinder.
The baddie survives, barely, with his face in tatters, later sewn up and stitched to resemble Frankenstein's monster as imagined by Chester Gould. He rechristens himself "Jigsaw" to mark the occasion, thereby rising to supervillain status. He and his minions break Russoti's brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison, TV's "Lost"), out the asylum, and set out to terrorize the slain FBI agent's widow (Julie Benz, "Rambo," TV's "Dexter") and child, because they think her husband stole a bunch of money from their operation.
The Punisher, of course, to the rescue! In each of the film's spectacular action set pieces, Castle sneaks in undetected and offs dozens of well-armed goons with the greatest of ease, just like that daring young man on the flying trapeze. These sequences pop with gore and glee, achieving a level of purposeful ridiculousness that not even the comics dare attempt.
The difference between this "Punisher" and its older brother is that at least the sequel knows when it's being bad. Its self-awareness in being a cornball B movie pays off in atrocious sight gags (watch for the monkey boys), throwaway dialogue ("I'm gonna get my applesauce back") and pervading over-the-topness, continuously piled on by the screenplay (from two of the "Iron Man" writers) and encouraged by director (and former world kickboxing champion) Lexi Alexander ("Hooligans").
As The Punisher, Stevenson is all badass stare-and-glare, which is all the part calls for; he does it well. West chews the scenery, spits it out and laps it back up again, while Hutchison channels Ray Liotta in "Something Wild."
Supporting parts include lots of furniture and utensils that poke through various characters' heads and torsos during "War Zone"'s outrageously wet bloodbaths. Myself, I still prefer the generally unseen 1989 "Punisher" starring Dolph Lundgren and Louis Gossett Jr., but "War Zone" puts the franchise back on the right track. The third time, indeed, is the charm — albeit covered with bits of brain. —Rod Lott