Maybe they’ll just keep taking their best shots at “The Punisher” until they score a hit. Second film adaptation of the Marvel Comics franchise about a heavily armed vigilante is marginally better than the slapdash 1989 edition featuring Dolph Lundgren as the titular antihero. As straight-up action-adventure, however, this version — with Tom Jane (“Deep Blue Sea”) as the lead and John Travolta as the deadly serious (and deathly dull) bad guy — fires blanks. Thoroughly routine, pic plays like a paint-by-numbers pilot for bygone basic-cable teleseries. Theatrical life should be short.
Although much less widely known to the general public than the Fantastic Four, X-Men and other Marvel heavy-hitters, the Punisher has attracted a fiercely loyal following since his first “guest star” appearance in a February 1974 issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Eventually spun off in his own comicbook, the renegade character was intro’ed early on as Frank Castle, much-decorated Marine whose wife and children were killed when the family stumbled upon a gangland execution. After authorities proved unable to convict guilty parties, Castle drafted himself to become a full-service dispenser of rough justice.
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Not unlike makers of the initial “Punisher” pic, first-time feature helmer Jonathan Hensleigh and co-scripter Michael France take liberties while reconstituting comicbook mythos. In this version, Castle (Jane, here billed as Tom rather than Thomas, as he has been known up to now) is a Florida-based FBI agent who ramrods an ill-fated sting that ends with the inadvertent killing of a would-be arms dealer. Unfortunately, the deceased is son of Howard Saint (Travolta), a seemingly respectable Tampa businessman who retains vicious killers and other miscreants while laundering millions for South American drug kingpins.
At the urging of Livia (Laura Harring), his even more bloodthirsty wife, Saint orders his small army of hit men to invade Castle’s family reunion celebration in Puerto Rico and kill everything that moves. Resulting slaughter claims Castle’s flinty father (a fleeting appearance by Roy Scheider), his beloved wife (Samantha Mathis), young son (Marcus Johns) and two or three dozen other unfortunates. But Castle himself survives, albeit just barely, and returns to Florida to… well, to punish the killers.
If opening scenes are disappointingly prosaic, the rest is depressingly rote and sometimes laughably silly. Unique flavor of the comicbook character’s method and motivation has been homogenized in a standard-issue revenge scenario that recalls nothing so much as the straight-to-video vehicles of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Upon his return to Tampa, Castle doesn’t even try to maintain a low profile while launching his vendetta. When he isn’t zooming around the city in his souped-up GTO, or announcing his intentions to local cops and TV camera crews, he spends hours alone and unguarded in his decrepit tenement apartment, guzzling Wild Turkey and loading his guns while waiting for Saint’s goons to drop by.
A few nasty palookas do indeed show up now and then (pic’s best sequence has Castle and one bulky adversary literally crashing through walls while fighting). But even though the bad guys know Castle’s precise whereabouts — a rockabilly trigger man (Mark Collie) even knows what diner he visits each morning for breakfast — they never manage to be in the right place at the right time, with the right number of bullets, to perforate the Punisher.
Hensleigh (whose scripting credits include “Armageddon” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance”) tries to humanize Castle by surrounding the remorseless revenger with colorful neighbors — a sad-eyed waitress (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a corpulent cook (John Pinette) and body-pierced computer geek (Ben Foster), but they’re not around enough to make much impact. In contrast, villains are onscreen too often, to little purpose.
As Saint, Travolta goes through the motions with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s fulfilling a commitment after losing a bet. True enough, his role is a cliche that — along with the pic’s Florida locale — seems a throwback to “Miami Vice.” But Travolta does nothing to inject fresh life into bland archetype (baddie in the original was embodied by Jeroen Krabbe).
Jane evidences appropriate physicality and brooding gravitas, and he looks way-cool in the Punisher’s trademark skull-adorned T-shirt. Overall, however, thesp is hampered by the pic’s oddly and off-puttingly colorless conception of the title character as a generic action hero with big guns and a bad attitude.
Production values are unremarkable.