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Veteran FBI agent Frank Castle is good at what he does—busting bad guys. But his final undercover sting goes wrong when someone unexpected shows up, and in the ensuing gunplay the son of local crime boss Howard Saint is killed. Saint, who is anything but saintly, orders Castle killed. His scheming wife, Livia, wants even more: Castle’s entire family dead.
Thinking he’s left his dangerous days behind, Frank retires from the FBI and takes his wife and son to an extended family reunion in Puerto Rico. That’s where Saint’s goons find them. After a lot of explosions, gunfights and car chases everyone is dead—except the primary target, a badly wounded and left-for-dead Frank.
As he nurses himself back to health, Frank nurtures a major grudge. Hiding out in a dingy tenement complete with quirky neighbors, Frank plots his revenge. But merely killing the bad guys is no longer enough: they must suffer before dying. They must be punished.
Extended Castle family members obviously love one another. Frank and his wife show great affection to each other and their son. Frank rescues a neighbor from an abusive boyfriend, and the neighbors in turn go the extra mile in protecting him from killers.
A killer spares a man, saying, “I don’t want the karma of your death on my soul.” A local fisherman, who wears a gold crucifix, is referred to as a witchdoctor. Frank’s son buys a T-shirt with the famous Punisher skull logo on it, explaining that it will ward off evil spirits. (Little good it does: he’s killed in the next scene.) Frank’s wife insists, “We’re not lucky; we’re blessed.” As Frank contemplates suicide, he thinks he sees his wife’s ghost urging him not to. A man says, “Via con Dios—go with God.” Frank replies, “God’s going to sit this one out."
Frank and his wife kiss on the beach. He starts to remove her blouse, and it’s implied they have sex. A few women are seen in bikinis and extremely revealing shorts. We see a very brief flash of breast nudity in a topless bar. Saint’s wife removes a robe to reveal a slinky cocktail dress. Saint tells a man, “I could have you killed in prison in a deeply pornographic way.” One of Saint’s goons is being blackmailed because he’s homosexual. In one scene we see him kiss his male lover.
How do I kill thee? Let me count the ways. Being blown up, shot, stabbed, set on fire or run down by a car are the minor means of death in this movie. A few grisly methods stand out: a woman is thrown off an overpass in front of an oncoming train. A man’s head is split in two with the blade from a paper cutter. Another is threatened with torture with an acetylene torch. One is shot through the neck with an arrow, while still another has boiling water thrown in his face.
In less deadly forms of violence, men are kicked in the face, groin and stomach. A man has his hand smashed with a large mallet, and another has his hand “stapled” to his buttocks with a large knife. In one excruciating scene, a man with a lot of piercings in his face has them yanked out one at a time with pliers.
(Where, by the way, does one go to buy not just the huge collection of pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives Franks uses, but also the claymore mines, plastic explosives and 40mm grenade launchers?)
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used more than 10 times. One extended conversation features it as a sexual term. A song utilizes it over the closing credits. The s-word shows that many times as well, once in German. Less serious crudities such as "h---," "a--" and "d--n" are frequently used. God’s and Jesus' names are profaned a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
FBI agents toast one another with champagne. People at a picnic drink beer, wine and margaritas. There are recurrent scenes of people drinking beer and mixed drinks. One man smokes a pipe, and several smoke cigarettes. A plot point turns on a fake Cuban cigar. Frank drowns his sorrows by frequently guzzling from a bottle of whiskey. His neighbor, a recovering alcoholic, tries to talk him out of it.
Other Negative Elements
Some of the violence is played for laughs, including one extended fight scene between Frank and a hulking, hugely muscled assassin.
The moviemakers aren’t satisfied merely to kill off the bad guys; they seem to relish slow, painful deaths, especially those in which the man dying knows it’s Frank who's doing the “punishing.”
Movie seasons sometimes go through unintended trends. One year you have two volcano movies, another you have two computer-animated bug movies, and yet another sees two killer asteroid movies. This year’s trend seems to be vengeance. Walking Tall glorifies vigilante justice. Kill Bill, The Punisher and Man on Fire glorify payback.
We’ve seen this before. In the early ‘70s Hollywood released Clint Eastwood’s "Dirty Harry" series, and Charles Bronson made two “Death Wish” flicks. They featured, respectively, a cop going beyond the law and a private citizen taking the law into his own hands. Such movies always seem to come at a time when many feel a loss of control over their lives. The law seems powerless to control societal breakdown, so moviegoers enjoy the vicarious experience of making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
Watching The Punisher, we’re horrified to see innocent family members murdered, and it’s only natural to want to see justice done. But it almost instantly rules out the legal means of justice so that Frank seems justified in doing what he’s doing. It also plays games with moral reasoning. When a woman asks Frank what makes him different from the bad guys he’s going to kill, he responds coldly, “They have something to lose.” Then he explains his rationale in a voiceover as he sets about creating mayhem: “In certain situations, the law is inadequate. Sometimes we need to shame the law into action. People need to be killed as part of natural justice. This is not revenge; revenge is an emotion. This is punishment.”
The Punisher is based on a Marvel Comics series, as was Spider-Man. It’s hard to believe that the same creative minds that gave us the humble, self-sacrificing Spidey could create this cold, calculating, amoral “hero."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Tom Jane as Frank Castle; John Travolta as Howard Saint; James Carpinello as Bobby Saint and Joe Saint; Samantha Mathis as Maria Castle; Marcus Johns as Will Castle; Laura Harring as Livia Saint; Will Patton as Quentin Glass; Ben Foster as Dave: John Pinette as Bumpo; Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Joan
Jonathan Hensleigh ( )