The Punisher is troubling. Comic book heroes often have a dark side, but they’re usually not amoral like the protagonist, Frank Castle, depicted in the new movie from Lions Gate Films. So I called Highlander Comics in Denver to see if the screen matched the page. Omar answered the phone and confirmed that The Punisher is not supposed to be a hero. “He’s a psychopath; he enjoys killing people.”
I’m sure there are those who enjoy a bit of unrestrained revenge, or “natural justice” as Castle calls it, loading one into the chamber. I find it disturbing.
R for Pervasive brutal violence, language, brief nudity
“The Punisher” is the nom de guerre of Frank Castle, (but not until the end of the film).
The first 30 minutes show agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) working undercover to bust gun runners. His latest bust is also his last. He plans to retire to London with his family, but not before he celebrates a family reunion in Puerto Rico.
During the bust, one of the buyers was killed. He was the son of a powerful crime boss named Mr. Saint (John Travolta), whose wife Livia (Laura Harring) demands revenge. Saint sends a hit squad to kill Castle and his entire family. Only Castle survives, and just barely. Castle snaps and becomes a one-man revenge machine.
Omar tells me that The Punisher appeals to readers in several ways. For one, the little guy gets to beat up (or kill) the bully, an appeal highlighted in the movie by Castle’s three neighbors. Picture them on the playground and you’ll see who The Punisher is meant to appeal to. Bumpo (John Pinette) was the fat kid, Dave (Ben Foster) was a geek (he’s now pierced all over his face), and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) has always managed to pick abusive boyfriends.
Another appeal is that The Punisher allows more violence than other comics. People read them to see what new ways he’ll use to kill the next bad guy. It’s territory that Spider-Man dares not tread, and it has a certain appeal among comics readers.
Likewise, in the movie, Castle uses some cruel tricks to take out Saint’s people. He creates an elaborate setup to get Saint to kill his own wife. Another son of Saint, trapped in the rubble of one explosion, is left gingerly holding an anti-personnel mine that will go off when his arm gets tired.
But he also uses good old-fashioned killing techniques. Several henchmen are shot. Another two die from knife wounds. Saint himself kills a man by stabbing him four times, all at a gruesomely realistic pace.
Types of Violence
I’m not averse to violence per se in movies. Realistic violence can highlight serious social problems (American History X), or show the price some men pay for their beliefs (The Passion of the Christ). I find it harder to defend stylized violence, but pop culture seems to have no trouble accepting the blood geysers in Kill Bill, or the “hilarious” accidental death in the back seat of a car in Pulp Fiction.
But mixing realistic violence and comic-book revenge-fantasy is distasteful. Oliver Stone tried something similar in Natural Born Killers and turned off most of America. I suppose there are people who will “get” the contradiction, but I hope none of them live too close to me.
Ironically, the best scene in the film is one of comic-book violence. Saint sends “The Russian” (WWF wrestler Kevin Nash) to take care of Castle. Thomas Jane is buff, tall (6’), and formidable. But Nash is a gigantic 6’10”, and probably uses three kinds of steroids. The Russian never speaks, only uses blunt weapons, and has a shock of bleach-blond hair and a red-and-white striped tee shirt, making him look like a comic-book villain come to life. The ensuing fight is like Jaws versus James Bond, but even more fun.
But the comic-book tone is quickly supplanted by cruel scenes of torture and horrible revenge. It’s a little hard to appreciate the comic-book violence when it becomes so real.
Perhaps readers of the comic books will know how to take the movie, and will be better able to say whether it’s good or bad, and why. For this Punisher novice, The Punisher is too cruel to be fun.