When gangster Billy the Beaut (Dominic West) arrives at the home of the crime lord he serves under, he is bristling, with one thing on his mind: to pull off the lucrative drugs deal he has been planning independently, and do it tonight. He goes up to see the gangster boss and they have a conversation that turns from polite to edgy in a matter of seconds, though they do reach some kind of agreement and Billy is invited to stay for the dinner being held downstairs, but he wants to get away. Fortunate for him, because once the first course has been served the guests are paid a visit from a powerful vigilante known as The Punisher (Ray Stevenson)...
This was the third attempt to craft a successful movie from the Marvel comic book hero, and if anything it received the worst reviews of any of them, yet after a while it transpired that Punisher: War Zone was gaining quite the following among those who relished no-nonsense action and a harking back to the eighties, the heyday of such things, in its style. If there was one aspect that director Lexi Alexander understood, it was that the action movies of twenty years before and more were the counterpart to that other easy-to-make genre of the time, the slasher movie.
Therefore where in a slasher horror the invention that went into killing off characters was the design of the villain, in an action effort it was the hero who went out of his way to bump off as many people as possible, only he was on the side of right. So it is here, with The Punisher coming up with a variety of novel ways to snuff out not-so innocent lives, but oops, what's this, it's the unwelcome sight of moral ambiguity arising when early on he deliberately murders who he thinks is a criminal, yet then discovers he was an F.B.I. agent. This means ladeling on the self doubt for our hero, as if he was not morose enough.
Alexander apparently enjoys working with British actors, because here she cast three of them, all with appropriately vivid screen presences, to take the main roles. Along with Stevenson and West, there is Colin Salmon as Budiansky, the agent hunting down the vigilante, and throwing a sop to those who might object to the film's otherwise full-blooded embrace of taking the law into your own hands. Yet at least there's the notion that if you do decide to start doing that you will eventually commit some soul-destroying act, and Stevenson gets a little too good at gazing despondently into the middle distance as he contemplates that he might not be welcomed in heaven thanks to his violent ways.
Despite this inclusion of a religious angle, the film knows its audience and there are still plenty of sequences where The Punisher fires off about a thousand bullets or breaks a few dozen necks or flings a considerable handful of bad guys off the top of buildings. He even blows up a parkour proponent mid-leap with a guided missile, for an "are you sure you're taking this seriously?" moment. As for Billy, he is dropped into a glass recycling crusher which he survives to become the popular comic book villain Jigsaw, and with his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) to encourage him, he plots to take his revenge: there's barely a character here who isn't hitting the vengeance trail. As for the ladies, Julie Benz plays the undercover agent's widow, but she and her daughter are simply around to be saved as the testosterone levels are too high for any femininity to flourish. This may have been lead-footed as a thriller, but for a Punisher movie it wasn't bad at all considering its previous screen incarnations. Music by Michael Wandmacher.