Eric D. Snider

The Punisher

Who wants to see a movie about a guy who takes it upon himself to punish people? Fighting for justice and capturing bad guys is one thing; that's what superheroes are supposed to do. But actually PUNISHING them? That's for the courts, dude. LEARN YOUR CHECKS AND BALANCES, MR. PUNISHER!

The punisher in "The Punisher," a relentlessly dark and unintentionally funny movie, is Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), a tightly abbed, often shirtless man who has just retired from the FBI despite being, what, 35? On his last bust, a screwed-up punk got killed, and now the kid's father -- powerful underworld boss and nightclub owner Howard Saint (John Travolta) -- wants revenge.

Saint's idea of revenge is not to kill Castle, however. It's to kill Castle and his family. But it's not just the wife and son who get axed, like it usually is in revenge movies. It's his ENTIRE FAMILY -- parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, everyone. This is easily accomplished because the Castle family has conveniently scheduled a reunion in Puerto Rico on the very weekend that Saint decides he wants them all dead. (If family reunions weren't already a bad idea, here's another reason to avoid them.)

Frank Castle survives, though, and now HE wants revenge. He's gonna take down the whole operation, every part of the Saint crime organization. He'll hatch elaborate plots to turn the Saints and their associates against one another, plant evidence and manipulate facts to get them where he wants them, and spend weeks training, planning and scheming. And yet still, as it always does in these movies, it will all come down to two men shooting at each other.

The film is directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, a film writer ("Armageddon," "Die Hard: With a Vengeance") making his debut in this capacity, and written by Hensleigh and Michael France ("Hulk," GoldenEye"). It is based on a Marvel comic book, one of the more unusual titles, as it deals with a character who has neither super powers nor a particularly good motive: Once he's avenged his family's death, why does he need to go around killing OTHER people who have wronged someone? Again, fight the crime if you want, but QUIT KILLING PEOPLE!

The dialogue is frequently laughable, and the supporting characters -- including a trio of misfits who live in the apartment next to Castle's -- are cartoonish. It's all kind of diverting, in a big, dumb way, but it doesn't come close to connecting on the level that the good comic book films have done, and it's too dark and occasionally gruesomely violent to feel very "fun" anyway.

Travolta's insane, fey villain, Jane's steely-eyed avenger, the henchmen and goons and lackeys -- shouldn't Steven Seagal be starring in this? And if he were, would I even have wasted THIS much space writing about it?

Grade: C-

Rated R, some harsh profanity, a lot of violence, some torture, some nudity

2 hrs., 4 min.

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