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Photograph by Jonathan Wenk
NEWMAN? IS THAT YOU? Seinfeld nemesis Wayne Knight has slimmed down to play Frank Castle's procurement officer in 'Punisher: War Zone.'

Dead by Dawn

Surprise. 'Punisher: War Zone' is a Punisher movie that isn't punishing

By Richard von Busack

ONCE, THE PUNISHER was a soldier named Frank Castle whose family was snuffed for having witnessed a mafia execution. Now, bundled up in a bullet-proof uniform with a black matte skull burned into it, he prunes the family trees of mafia criminals. One ordinary day, he goofs and shoots an FBI agent, leaving him with second thoughts about the course of his actions. Meanwhile, an intrepid government agent (the regal Colin Salmon, a frequent presence in the Brosnan Bond films) keeps the film's moral compass by trying his best to bring Castle to justice.

Directed by the female martial artist Lexi Alexander, Punisher: War Zone is a surprisingly fun and good-looking action movie in the 1980s vein. Everything is visible, for a change—maybe it's just Alexander's lack of experience that forced her to keep things simple. Cinematographer Steve Gainer makes this new Punisher film well lit, with scribbles of neon providing highlights; there are a lot of deep rich purples and reds in this movie.

Alexander wants you to see the stunt work and the squashed-tomato impacts of the bullets. The exploding heads are just an extreme form of slapstick. Alexander makes the desensitizing violence so bracing that you have to ask yourself why you ever bothered buying tickets to see sensitizing violence. The cast and the director seem resolved to have a good time while playing it very straight.

And the film has a villain who exerts himself. A preening mob boss called Billy the Beaut (Dominic West, McNulty on The Wire) is attacked at his headquarters in a recycling yard, and the villain falls into a crusher with a large load of broken glass. This treatment does his complexion no favors. Renaming himself Mr. Jigsaw, Billy continues the hunt for Castle. I first saw West adding a shot of ambiguity to the end of the Ian McKellen Richard III; he was a Henry IV who was clearly going to keep perpetuating the violence.

It's now clear that West is going to be a villain; he's a part of the acting spectrum that's too handsome for anyone to trust. Being ugly—one of his henchman barfs at first sight of Billy's new face—liberates West. While making his drawling threats under a nasty-looking plastic surgery job, he has a Bensonhurst sidekick, his crazy little brother, derided as "Loony Bin Jim" (Doug Hutchison, also much fun).

The Punisher himself is played by the solemn and ginormous Ray Stevenson, who has plenty more heft than Thomas Jane, the last one to play this vigilante. Early in the film, his Castle fixes his broken nose with a shoved-in pencil. From that moment on, the Punisher evinces one cheery little tic: a sniff when he goes into danger, as if he could smell criminals wherever they hide.

His sidekick and armorer is Wayne (Newman from Seinfeld) Knight, and I can't recall enjoying Knight this much in a movie before (particularly Jurassic Park). He has toned down his TV mannerisms for the movies, and he looks like he's lost a lot of weight. Knight delivers the most overt humor in the film. Presenting the avenger with a huge new gun, he chortles, "It's gun-show season in Virginia! No background checks!" Parodying the tedious Hamlet-like indecision scenes in superhero movies (a bit we got too much of in The Dark Knight), Knight counts down "three ... two ... one" after Castle hangs up his weapons—for all of 15 seconds.


Movie Times PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (R; 107 min.), directed by Lexi Alexander, written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, photographed by Steve Gainer and starring Ray Stevenson and Dominic West, plays valleywide.

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