- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2004

Frank Castle, that’s The Punisher to the Marvel Comics faithful, isn’t your average superhero. He can’t fly, crawl up walls or bend steel with his bare hands.

But he sure doesn’t mind applying a little capital punishment when needed.

That naked vigilantism is the calling card for the latest comic book writ large on screen. Unfortunately, “The Punisher” is no “Spider-Man,” or even “Daredevil,” for that matter.

The film serves as exhibit A that not every pen-and-ink figure deserves such a grand canvas.

“The Punisher” isn’t your daddy’s caped crusader. He’s a hard-drinking loner with a death wish who wears a skull T-shirt when it’s time to take out the trash.

He didn’t start out that way.

FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is about to retire when an arms deal he engineered goes awry and one of the sellers gets killed in the melee. Frank shrugs it off as the price the bad guys must pay, but this hooligan was the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a shady Tampa, Fla. tycoon who needs a few lessons on proper grieving.

Saint dispatches his goons to find out how his son died, then blames Frank for his loss. Instead of killing just Frank, Saint decides with his wife’s blessing to massacre Frank’s family.

And we don’t just mean Frank’s missus and their adorable son; we’re talking the whole extended Castle clan gathered at a Puerto we’re talking the whole extended Castle clan gathered at a Puerto Rico getaway. Frank is left for dead, too, but he’s too flooded with rage to stay down long.

He bides his time while his body heals, all the while plotting his elaborate revenge.

Mr. Jane’s performance in the title role is, to be sure, punishing. But did the audience really deserve such punishment? Didn’t we get enough two weeks ago, when “Walking Tall” opened?

It’s not all Mr. Jane’s fault.

Instead of a nifty superhero sidekick, he gets a script with at least a half-dozen unintentional guffaws. The actor certainly has the physique for the superhero biz — every other scene finds him shirtless, his chest oiled up as if ol’ Frank were gunning for the Mr. Superhero 2004 title.

But perfect pecs do not a superhero make. Ask Michael Keaton.

And what’s Mr. Travolta doing here, besides cashing a paycheck and talking in a pseudo-tough voice without moving his lips? He needs a Tarantino booster shot, stat.

Those who blame the media for our violent culture will find a treasure trove of ammunition with “The Punisher.” Director Jonathan Hensleigh doesn’t infuse the limb-snapping with any ironic or visual relish. They’re black-and-white atrocities drawn too literally from the source material.

The film’s dour tone lifts when Frank meets his new neighbors, a motley troupe led by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who proves she can’t look dowdy, no matter how hard the makeup department tries.

“The Punisher’s” best sequence finds Frank fighting off a Russian hitman in his apartment while Mr. Hensleigh cuts away to Frank’s neighbors bonding over opera music. Finally, a moment that marries the childlike pleasures of the comic-book world to The Punisher’s physical anguish.

In 1989, Dolph Lundgren starred in a B-movie take on “The Punisher,” but given the resources applied to this year’s model, couldn’t we have expected something other than a B-movie gussied up with some big names and bigger explosions?

*1/2

WHAT: “The Punisher”

RATING: R (Extremely violent action, torture, harsh language and alcohol use)

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. Written by Mr. Hensleigh and Michael France. Original music by Carlo Siliotto. Cinematography by Conrad W. Hall.

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

WEB SITE: www.punisherthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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