At the end of Jonathan Hensleigh’s adaptation of
“The Punisher,” Frank Castle utters that only the scum
of society — murderers, rapists and sadists — will
remember him. He’s probably right. Only such twisted fiends
would care to remember this shoddy retelling of the classic revenge
tale that offers little more than sparse, satisfying doses of comic
violence.

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, “Dreamcatcher”) is a
retired special ops soldier working as one of the FBI’s
premier undercover operatives; his career, though, is coming to a
close. After completing his final assignment for the FBI, he plans
to settle down with his wife and child.

Castle’s plans are foiled, however, when fraudulent
financier Howard Saint seeks vengeance for his dead son — who
died at the hands of Castle’s unit. Saint sends his squadron
of goons to the Castle family reunion in Puerto Rico. They
indiscriminately gun down the Castle clan, leaving all, including
Frank, for dead.

A local medicine man fortuitously rescues Castle and nurses the
soldier back to health. Frank returns to the United States,
compiles a frighteningly large weapons cache, establishes a base of
operations in a derelict, urban apartment and proceeds to punish
the scum who massacred his family.

It’s not clear, until perhaps the concluding scenes, what
the intended mood of “The Punisher” is. At times, it
seems to be an attempted neo-noir, with overwhelmingly dark scenes
and and melodramatic sounds. It also comes across, though, as a
playful action trip, looking in jest at Castle’s various
confrontations with villainous henchmen. The serious, rough
dialogue is punctuated with hackneyed, unoriginal one-liners,
contributing even more to this general discontinuity.

Thomas Jane is, moreover, an annoying, ultimately frustrating
action hero. He’s got the physical features and grizzled look
to make the part work, but his personality — and his
excessively rough voice, too — cripple the role. Jane comes
across as manufactured. He has the necessary parts to play the role
well, that is, but he’s unable to bring them together in a
remotely convincing way.

John Travolta, as should be expected, brings little to the table
as Howard Saint. It’s as though the villain is two different,
irreconcilable people: Most of the time, he’s a mischievous
banker who casually launders money and protects his wife more than
he should; occasionally, however, he’s an impulsive maniac
who kills thoughtlessly. It’s rather hard to believe that
these personalities could emerge so suddenly from the same man.

The scenes of action are, indeed, the film’s sole
redeeming quality. Castle brandishes a slew of lethal weapons
— including military-grade machine guns and explosives
— and employs them in surprisingly creative ways. He takes
out one crony with an innovative, projectile switchblade and splits
the skull of another with the dull edge of an office-grade paper
cutter. It’s a shame that Hensleigh and Jane couldn’t
supplement the action with a story and lead character worthy of its
company.

 

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

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