This film is only a winner if you consider it an entry in what my colleague Jonah Spangenthal-Lee has named the Superhero Movie Special Olympics. It is better than Daredevil, sure, and Batman Forever and Ghost Rider and those wretched Fantastic Four movies, and yes, it is much better than both previous Punisher films. It would be the gold-medal winner when compared to all those stinkers. But it's still retarded.

There are flashes of greatness here: As the Punisher, Ray Stevenson is like the comic-book character come to life. He's not the hyperbuff man-child we've seen in most Marvel Comics movies: He's a single-minded psychopath who will fight dirty and shoot the fuck out of anyone who gets in his way. And Dominic West, as a vain mob boss who swims in a whirlpool of broken glass and becomes a disfigured supercriminal, does his best to chew through lines like "Billy is dead. From now on... you call me Jigsaw!" And he almost makes it too.

But besides Stevenson's herculean efforts to bring credulity to a character who's thinner than the pulpy paper he's printed on, all the other actors—especially Doug Hutchison as a maniac who does eeee-vil things like shoot a little girl's dolls for the fun of it (because he's eeee-vil!)—fall prey to the awful script. At times, the dialogue is so bad it's funny ("Don't die on me!" the Punisher barks at a guy with an axe in his chest, and when the guy coughs up some blood to protest, Punisher snaps at him, "Shut up, kid, you're gonna be fine!"), but more often it's just pathetic (Hutchison tries to make "Yummy yummy yummy in my tummy tummy tummy" sound menacing. He fails.)

At least the action is gory and malicious. The Punisher saws the heads off of mob bosses and blows up gangsters 20 at a time. The special effects are often laughably bad, but it's all part of the cheesy fun. And Alexander tries to spin things into places they should not go, imbuing the proceedings with a weird, off-kilter vibe. This movie at once glorifies violence and comments, in a bizarre, performance-arty montage, about the dishonorable recruitment tactics of the U.S. Army recruiters. Characters shoot hostages in the head and complain about health-care woes. These scenes are the kind of thing that makes the movie worthwhile, if only because they momentarily pause the pathetic excuse for a plot.

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But Alexander takes quite a few wrong turns: Why is the color palette for the first half of the film a bright neon green and yellow, and why is the second half soaked in the glow of pastel blues and pinks? Why is every single person in this movie, even the child who is supposed to represent innocence and hope, completely creepy? No answers are forthcoming here.

But in the filmmaker's defense, she didn't have a lot to work with. Here is the origin of the Punisher comic book character: Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway went to see Death Wish, and then he ripped off the main character and turned him into a superhero. And though the Punisher's comic book has been weirdly blessed by great writers and artists over the decades, he's not an interesting or good character at all: He's an armed maniac who kills criminals. That's it. Lots of gun perverts really like him, along with the sorts of people who think that litterers should get the death penalty, especially if those litterers happen to be browner than themselves. When they come to see Punisher: War Zone, those people will love all the gore and be confused by the liberal messages woven into the film, and then they will go home and masturbate to Jane's Gun Recognition Guide. The end. recommended

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