Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, hovers like an angel of death over New York City's gritty underworld. Once a contented family man before his wife and two children were gunned down by the mob, the tormented Special Forces-trained weapons master now lives for a single purpose: unleashing full-auto, hollow-point justice upon smug crime lords who consider themselves above the law. In his dingy lair beneath the bowels of NYC's subway system, Castle makes his own bullets and awaits his next target.
He never has to wait long.
His War Zone nemesis is would-be godfather Billy Russoti, an up-and-coming kingpin who's brokering a deal to transport Russian bioweapons to Middle Eastern terrorists in New York. Castle mows down almost all of Russoti's operation early in the film. Uncharacteristically, however, the Punisher makes two mistakes in the process: He guns down an undercover FBI agent whom he believes is a criminal. And he leaves Russoti for dead, screaming and bleeding as a glass recycling machine grinds him into crimson pulp.
But Russoti doesn't die. Instead, the disfigured baddie—now going by the moniker Jigsaw due to his Frankensteinian appearance—plots revenge against the Punisher and the dead FBI agent's surviving family (Angela Donatelli and her daughter, Grace).
The key to Jigsaw's retribution: freeing his insanely violent brother, Loony Bin Jim, from an asylum.
Meanwhile, Castle is crushed by the knowledge that his actions have left a family bereft of its husband and father. He's ready to hang up his holsters ... until he learns that Jigsaw intends to go after the Donatellis.
Jigsaw isn't the Punisher's only problem. He's also pursued by dogged FBI agent Paul Budiansky, who's determined to bring the vigilante to proper justice. Budiansky is shown to be a man who believes in and (for the most part) adheres to the law instead of taking it into his own hands. Budiansky eventually offers to help Castle go after Jigsaw, but Castle knocks him out so the agent won't break his professional oath trying to aid him.
Castle shows absolutely no remorse for the criminals he dispatches. But when one of his victims turns out to be an FBI agent, he's virtually crippled by his pangs of conscience. He tries to give Angela a bag full of cash to provide for Grace, but she won't accept it. He also decides he can no longer devote himself to vigilante "justice," and says the police will have to take care of things from now on. When Jigsaw kidnaps the mother and daughter, however, Castle risks his life to rescue them.
Castle's only real friend is a weapons guru named Micro who purchases guns from criminals on the streets and gives them to the Punisher. [Spoiler Warning] When Jigsaw's nefarious plot forces Castle to choose between saving the life of Micro or the lives of the Donatellis, Micro bravely tells his friend to pick the mother and daughter.
A poignant scene shows Castle cleaning off the gravestone of his deceased family. During the Donatellis' stay at his underground HQ, he treats young Grace tenderly, like a daughter, covering her with an extra blanket while she sleeps and allowing her to play with his deceased daughter's favorite toys.
Surprisingly, we learn that Frank Castle was once a seminary student. He visits a church and is confronted by a priest who knows his whole story. The priest quotes Matthew 7:2: "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Castle says that he's "OK with that" and willing to accept any judgment upon him because of his violent ways. And when the priest concludes, "God be with you, Frank," he replies, "Sometimes I'd like to get my hands on God."
At Agent Donatelli's funeral, a minister reads a litany of Scripture passages, including a paraphrased section from Psalm 103:8-10 that says, "The Lord is compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. He does not treat us according to our sins or our faults." The minister also reminds listeners at the funeral that we are but dust and are as the flower of the field that quickly withers.
When Castle tells Micro that Jigsaw will be his last victim, his friend responds, "From your lips to God's ears." A character mockingly describes God as "an imaginary friend." Others use the phrases "swear to God" and "hope to God." While dying, one of Castle's friends says, "See you in hell." To which he replies, "If I see you anywhere near hell, I'll kick you're a-- out." And when Castle eventually pushes Jigsaw into a fire, Castle quips, "This is just the beginning," implying that Jigsaw is going to hell. A lyric from a Rob Zombie song in the soundtrack includes the phrases "another day in hell" and "Jesus saves."
The film's final scene finds a street thug attempting to mug one of Castle's friends. In the background, a cross bears the illuminated promise "Jesus Saves." The word Jesus blinks out and goes dark just as Castle shoots and presumably kills the criminal.
A suggestive poster outside a seedy club is briefly seen in the background. A mob boss's wife wears a dress with a plunging neckline.
Punisher: War Zone prompted me to speculate about what the filmmakers' brainstorming sessions must have been like as they imagined new ways to picture all manner of mortal maiming. "What if Jigsaw rammed a candlestick into one side of a guy's throat and out the other?" one special effects guy might have said. "Yeah, yeah!" chimes in another, "And he can ram scissors into the head of his doctor when he takes off his bandages."
Such a meeting must have taken quite a while, because, well, there's quite a bit of graphic, anatomically detailed death dealt here. Heads and faces are blown off. People are impaled. A skull is smashed to pieces by the Punisher's fist. Bats and swords connect with flesh and bone. Arms and legs are cleanly—and not so cleanly—removed. An RPG obliterates an unsuspecting hooligan. Geysers of blood paint the screen red.
We hear a man screaming as Loony Bin Jim rips out his kidneys (which we don't see) and begins to eat one (which we do). He also takes an ax to one unfortunate victim who, with the ax buried in his torso, begs the Punisher to put him out of his misery. The Punisher obliges. LBJ plants his teeth in the Punisher's neck.
Speaking of necks, several get slashed. And broken. And I haven't even gotten to the parts in which countless goons get gunned down, have grenades dropped on them, etc. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to learn that the people responsible for storyboarding these scenes had just indulged in an "inspiring" marathon session of Kill Bill, Saw and Return of the Living Dead movies.
Drug and Alcohol Content
One of Jigsaw's lackeys repeatedly snorts cocaine from a small spoon. A police officer confesses that he used to steal and use the cocaine that he and his partner confiscated. Three especially wild criminals are said to be constantly high on meth.
Scenes take place in bars; a police officer seems to find solace in drinking. As the dust begins to settle near the end of the film, the same officer offers to buy Castle a drink. An elaborate, celebratory gathering of one mob family involves wine at a meal. Russian gangsters drink vodka.
Other Negative Elements
When Angela asks Castle, "Who punishes you?" he points her pistol toward his chest and encourages her to pull the trigger.
At least three different policemen discreetly provide aid to the Punisher and secretly root for him to kill criminals they can't prosecute. An FBI agent makes a dirty deal with Jigsaw in return for information about the delivery of the biological weapon to the extremists. The deal provides Jigsaw with permanent immunity.
Middle Eastern jihadists are never actually called Muslims, nor is the word Islam ever used. Instead, everyone referring to the terrorists calls them by the derogatory, racist label "towelheads."
One of Jigsaw's men vomits at the sight of his deformed boss. An elderly godfather character complains graphically about the fact that he has to defecate "in a bag."
In 1989 Dolph Lundgren first picked up the Punisher's pistols on the big screen. Fifteen years later, Marvel Studios rebooted the violence-prone vigilante. Now, Frank Castle's story starts over yet again. The '89 and '04 versions both earned an R rating for violence. This time around, the rating stays the same, but the film goes for considerably more contact. When I read that Punisher: War Zone was directed by a woman who, among other things, is a former world karate and kickboxing champion, I simply nodded. Sure. That makes sense.
"He's in a world of pain," says actor Ray Stevenson of his title character. "He's not a superhero; he's an antihero. There is no light at the end. When you commit to that, there's something heroically tragic about this lone warrior. You don't want to be him, but you're glad he's there. He stands out because of that."
But Stevenson is only two-thirds right. I don't want to be him, and he does stand out. But I can't say that I'm glad he's there—not when his presence is responsible for this mind-numbingly violent movie that glamorizes the idea that it makes sense to take life and death into your own hands. Sure, there's lip service given to the dangers of revenge. There's even brief spiritual musings that seem to somehow condemn it. But in the end, the final tally is something like Vigilantism: 300, Restraint and Due Process: 3. Not since The Matrix have automatic weapons and leather getups looked so very violently cool.
It's like a police officer who secretly revels in Frank Castle's dastardly do-gooding says, "He does to those b--tards what you and I only fantasize about."
A postscript: With the surging popularity of superhero films, expect to see more of this sort of fare. Punisher: War Zone is the first release from Marvel Knights, a division of Marvel Comics dedicated to "the people who populate and guard the dark corners of the Marvel universe." Thought The Dark Knight should have been rated R for violence? If Punisher is any indication, it looks like Marvel Knights is set to push things quite a bit further than that.