If a good comic book movie is defined by its fidelity to the source material then Punisher: War Zone (2008) is a masterpiece. Low-budget and gruesome, Punisher: War Zone is the comics come to life. Just like the comics characterization is at best two-dimensional, the violence breaks the laws of physics and innocent children inexplicably love the most brutal vigilante at Marvel.
Director Lexi Alexander is all in on the bloodletting. She looked over a handful of issues and understood that her movie had to be totally unhinged. Aided by her background in martial arts, Alexander creates a series of set pieces where a massacre is staged like ricocheting pin-balls. Alexander has the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) punch a guy so hard his face caves in; she has the Punisher break a man’s arm so the bone erupts from the flesh and then use that bone to slit another man’s throat; Alexander has the Punisher shoot a guy mid-leap with a rocket launcher so all that’s left is a fleshy kind of dust.
It’s this violence that has defined The Punisher titles since the character first appeared and Alexander understands this. But she also understands that, because she’s directing a comic book movie, there has to be more to Punisher: War Zone than a cavalcade of blood and guts. The dichotomy of good and evil exists in Punisher: War Zone as Punisher versus Jigsaw (Dominic West). The Punisher’s redeeming qualities are modeled after Dick Tracy (1990); Punisher has a moral code and is a would-be surrogate father. Similarly Jigsaw looks like a bad guy from Beatty’s film and follows a kind of cartoonish bad guy logic one associates with Batman: Forever (1995).
For every image of unrelenting sadism Lexi Alexander delivers an image of Saturday morning cartoon campiness. It’s a balance that sounds out of place but suits the character of the Punisher perfectly. The comic is all adult oriented violence with the intellectual and emotional maturity of a grade schooler. Alexander even re-iterates the comic book form cinematographically wherein the at first awkward fade to black scene transitions essentially represent the turning of a comic’s pages. It’s an ingenious little innovation that is very effective.
Punisher: War Zone being a truly inspired and faithful comic adaptation is really the problem with the movie though. No amount of Wayne Knight could even elevate Punisher: War Zone because it’s a faithful adaptation of a really, really bad comic. Lexi Alexander is so successful with her task that she even imports the shortcomings of the book into her film.