`Punisher' waffles between fantasy, reality

Intense action, plot help unoriginal effort

April 16, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Punisher punishes. That's what he does, and that's all this movie does.

Adapting the popular Marvel Comics character that makes Dirty Harry look like a wimp, The Punisher stars Baltimore native Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, an undercover narcotics cop who gets on the bad side of psychotic drug kingpin Howard Saint (John Travolta), who decrees that Castle and his entire family must die.

And so Saint's goons head for the conveniently scheduled Castle family reunion, where they proceed to dispatch all participants to the great beyond, capping it off by shooting Castle himself point-blank in the chest.

Haven't these guys read their superhero comics? Don't they know that will hardly kill a tough customer like Castle? All it does is make him mad and swearing vengeance. Which he proceeds to exact in a most bloody, overly inventive way.

Jane, who's been on the periphery of stardom for several years, brings a smoldering intensity to his characterization that, while compelling, doesn't always suit the material. A character like Castle demands a certain full-bore looniness, or at least maniacal singlemindedness of purpose. Jane's is a good job of acting in a role that probably didn't require it.

But the biggest drawback to The Punisher is the feeling that we've seen it all before, in pictures Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Jean-Claude Van Damme or any of a host of other Hollywood tough guys have made. Jonathan Hensleigh, a veteran action-adventure screenwriter trying his hand at directing, doesn't bring anything new to the table and doesn't display enough visual panache to make what is there all that exciting. His fights - and there are plenty - have a sameness that keeps the movie from planting its hooks in an audience.

Wasted is Travolta, who sleepwalks through another crazed nasty role. And a trio of misfits who serve as Castle's support system and surrogate family - a fat guy (John Pinette), a tattooed outcast (Ben Foster) and a lovelorn waitress (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) - appear as little more than an afterthought, serving little purpose other than doing things the screenwriter can't find anyone else to do.

There's also a bizarre superhuman-ness to Castle that seems out of place. Virtually everyone else in the films acts and dies according to the laws of physics, but this guy shakes off enough bullets and stab wounds to stop an army. The Punisher is like that, never quite sure whether it wants to be true to its comic-book roots or strive for a more realistic tone.

Viscerally, there's nothing wrong with The Punisher, a movie that should work just fine for those who like their action intense and plots basic. If nothing else, the film makes one anxious to see what shadings are added for the inevitable sequel.

The Punisher

Starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

Rated PG-13 (brutal violence, language and brief nudity

Released by Lions Gate Films

Time 124 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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