RATING |

I'd just about decided that "Punisher: War Zone" was the worst movie of the year when something happened to change my mind.

In the middle of an otherwise tedious action scene, a criminal was jumping from one roof to another when a rocket-propelled grenade suddenly spiraled in and hit him amidships, turning him into a bloody vapor that glowed crimson for a moment, then faded into the night like spent fireworks.

At a time when generic slaughter rendered in washed-out digital tones has come to define modern action movies, here was a moment with real flair.

A woman's touch?

Perhaps.

"War Zone" is directed by Lexi Alexander, a German lass who came to the States as a kickboxer and won a few tournaments before enrolling in UCLA's film school. She went on to write and direct a movie about soccer hooligans that had the misfortune to feature Elijah Wood as one of the brawling thugs.

At least in "War Zone" Alexander hasn't been stuck with Frodo Baggins. The lead goes to Ray Stevenson, who was punishing as Titus Pullo in HBO's "Rome," though one can't help but wonder what happened to erstwhile Punisher Thomas Jane, star of the most recent attempt to revive this Marvel brand.

What could have kept Jane from participating in the furthering of this franchise?

Probably its general level of awfulness, but that's just a guess.

I applaud Alexander for her exploding rooftop jumper, but those moments are few and far between in "War Zone," a dank, stupid and often sadistic vigilante yarn without much appeal outside its core constituency of ghouls, who'll laugh when an elderly dementia patient has her head blown off and we're left to gawk at the bloody stump.

The perpetrator is an organized-crime figure known as Jigsaw (Dominic West), so named for his disfigured face. He travels about with a lunatic brother looking for the crime-busting Punisher, who is still killing bad guys as perpetual vengeance for the murder of his family.

Charles Bronson had a sock full of quarters, the Punisher has every weapon known to man, and in the course of "War Zone" kills hundreds of crooks before getting to Jigsaw - unhappily for West, this occurs after he's given a career low performance.

There must have been moments when West wondered whether Alexander was pushing him over the top, but who's going to argue with her?

She'd kickbox the crap out of you. *

Produced by Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd, directed by Lexi Alexander, written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, music by Michael Wandmacher, distributed by Lionsgate.