Combustible Celluloid
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With: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Laura Elena Harring, Samantha Mathis, Ben Foster, Roy Scheider
Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France
Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 124
Date: 03/18/2013

The Punisher (2004)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Petty Vengeance

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Stone-cold antihero vigilante Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) begins this adaptation of Marvel comics' morose cult favorite The Punisher as a top-ranking, six-language-speaking undercover FBI counter-terrorism agent on his last gun-running sting before an early retirement, which he plans spend with his beautiful young wife and kid.

But that's before the son of a millionaire money-laundering crime boss gets killed in the resulting shootout. The next week, said crime boss (torpid John Travolta on villain autopilot) sends his henchmen to wipe out every living soul at Castle's family reunion, leaving the man himself for dead too, and thus setting the stage for...nothing more than your standard-issue, R-rated, pistols-a-blazin' revenge fantasy.

The only thing that makes Castle unique in the genre is his skull-design T-shirt that gives him the vague facade of a superhero -- something he needs badly since the guy has all the personality of a block of wood. The blank glower on the chiseled visage of Jane ( Dreamcatcher) is just barely enough to sell his pent-up-rage, but the actor's virtually monotone performance is symptomatic of the whole monotone movie.

Co-written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh -- the so-called "screenwriter" behind brain-dead, hole-riddled, all-action-all-the-time garbage like The Rock, Armageddon and Die Hard With a Vengeance -- The Punisher goes through the action-movie motions (car chases, explosions, machine-gun fire) and pays tribute to its source material (Castle kills with his dead dad's customized .45-caliber Colt 1911s), allowing a few dark tweaks to emerge from the comic book.

But it's an uninspired effort -- listless, lifeless, uninterestingly bleak and quite often ridiculous. It takes place in a world populated by only the movie's immediate cast -- no matter where an action-packed set piece occurs (popular public pier in Puerto Rico on a sunny afternoon, lobby of a sky-scraper at mid-day, outside a trendy downtown Tampa nightclub just after several large explosions and machine-gun fire inside), there's never a single bystander anywhere in sight.

Its supporting cast of supposed eccentrics is dry and dreary, from the neighbors in Castle's industrial-slum hideout (including abused diner waitress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and uber-pierced, unemployed punk Ben Foster) to the inefficient assassins hired to kill him (wrestler Kevin Nash is a bleach-blond Russian grunt who knocks on Castle's door, then throws him through plaster walls). In fact, the movie's casting is way off base in many ways, not the least of which is that Travolta (49) and his equally bloodthirsty wife, Mulholland Drive's Laura Harring (39), are supposed to be the parents of two grown men in their late 20s.

More significantly, Hensleigh seems to be ignorant of the raw emotion and real humanity lingering in the corners of the story, save a few obligatory lines espousing redemption over retribution. "So you kill them all," asks Romijn-Stamos, in a role that wastes her unexpected talent. "Then what makes you any different from them?" This is, of course, a rhetorical question, as Hensleigh couldn't care less about the answer. Stopping to think about such things could slow the body count.

With off-the-shelf shootout and showdown scenes that differ from any other over-the-top action fare only in their gloomy lighting, "The Punisher" can't begin to measure up to the popcorn vengeance of Mel Gibson's Payback or the moody, provocative, primal reprisal of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey In fact, even the cheap, cheesy 1989 B-movie adaptation of the same Marvel comic book (with dramatically lumbering Dolph Lungren in the title role) was more entertainingly bad than this picture.

But a more immediate comparison presents itself at the box office this very weekend as this film opens against the intricate, ingenious, action-packed yet deeply character-driven Kill Bill - Vol. 2 which makes up for Kill Bill - Vol. 1's shortcomings to such an astonishing degree that it may well turn out to be the best hell-bent-on-revenge movie ever made.

Even if you're a fan of The Punisher comics, ask yourself this as you stand in front of the multiplex: Whom do I trust to blow my mind -- Quentin Tarantino or a guy who has spent his career writing scripts that give the F/X crews more to do than the actors?

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