Some movies aren’t meant to be seen in Vermont. For the full experience, they should be viewed in a theater in pre-Giuliani Manhattan — say, Loews 84th Street — with gum stuck to the floor and patrons who laugh and cheer whenever someone bites it.
Punisher: War Zone is such a movie. The third film to be based on the long-running Marvel Comics character, it’s somewhat less classy than its most recent predecessor, The Punisher (2004), in which Thomas Jane played pitiless urban vigilante Frank Castle. Like a sequel, this Punisher fills us in on the character’s backstory in a perfunctory manner. (Thugs killed his family, so he got mad and even.) Unlike a sequel, it features a new star (Ray Stevenson) and a change of setting, not to mention dropping that namby-pamby the from its title.
The 2004 movie made some rudimentary attempts to explore how a law-abiding citizen becomes a killer. War Zone doesn’t bother with that stuff, though Stevenson occasionally stops to clench his jaw and look tormented. The star of HBO’s “Rome” can act and then some, but here he’s used mainly for his hulking presence.
None of this, however, explains what distinguishes Punisher: War Zone from any of the year’s unmemorably bad action movies, such as Max Payne or Bangkok Dangerous. To explain why it sucks in Vermont but might soar in a less family-friendly milieu, I submit the following list of Memorably Bad B-Movie must-haves:
(1) Over-the-top violence. Sure, it’s in every comic-book movie. But how often do you see a hero without superpowers smash his fist through a bad guy’s face with a single blow, or take out a whole table of people with dining implements and then shoot two guns at once while swinging upside-down from a chandelier?
(2) Way too “colorful” dialogue. The Punisher’s nerdy henchman (Wayne Knight, a.k.a. Newman from “Seinfeld”) describes his mission by saying, “You’re fighting a war against the assholes who slip between the raindrops.” When a priest innocently says, “God be with you,” our hero gnashes his teeth and replies, “Sometimes I wish I could get my hands on God.” But probably the biggest grindhouse theater ovation would go to Dash Mihok’s Samuel L. Jackson moment, when his FBI agent character addresses a roomful of cops as “you Krispy Kreme muthafuckas.”
(3) A villain with a messed-up face and attitude. Dominic West, renowned for his work on “The Wire,” goes way downmarket as a mobster who becomes the hideously deformed “Jigsaw” after the Punisher tosses him in a glass compactor. Though this English actor’s fake Corleone accent is painful to hear, he does have his moments, as when he assembles an army to kill the Punisher using the time-honored recruiting tactics of Uncle Sam.
(4) Julie Benz. The actress from TV’s “Dexter” appears to have become the go-to girl when a B-movie requires a shivering damsel in distress. So far this year, she’s played a scared missionary in Rambo and a scared real-estate developer in Saw V; here, she’s the scared FBI widow who exists solely to make the Punisher look more like a protector and less like a psychopath.
(5) Incessant violence used as justification for a knee-jerk pessimism about human nature, which in turn justifies further violence. To be fair, that also describes The Dark Knight. But while better films inspire actual debate on the subject of man’s inhumanity to man, Punisher is about the thrills an audience can get from vicarious, unrealistic, guilt-free brutality. Plain and simple.
Which is all well and good — the Romans had their coliseums, and we have our B-movies. Just once, though, it would be nice to see a cinematic tough guy take a regular punch and fall down.