Originally created 04/16/04

At the Movies: 'The Punisher'



The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The makers of "The Punisher," Hollywood's latest comic-book adaptation, need a basic civics lesson. Even matinee-ticket prices for "The Punisher" conceivably constitute excessive fines, and the sadistic two-hour assault of the movie itself certainly qualifies as cruel and unusual treatment of audiences looking for a good time.

Between "Walking Tall" and "The Punisher," Hollywood has delivered a one-two punch of debased vengeance, where heroes are as bloodthirsty as villains and the two differ only infinitesimally in that the filmmakers have stuck a halo on one and horns on the other.

It's like the old editorial cartoon that used the same illustration of an armed thug for a Salvadoran guerrilla (a bad guy in the U.S. government's opinion) and a Nicaraguan freedom fighter (a good guy from a U.S. stance). Same person, same deadly violence, slightly different interpretation of motive.

Based on the Marvel Comics character introduced in "The Amazing Spider-Man" in 1974, "The Punisher" tries to set up FBI undercover agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) as a noble family man so viewers will sympathize when he turns pitiless vigilante.

Yet Castle's a cold fish from the start, hollowly expressing displeasure when his final undercover sting goes awry before he moves on to a peaceful life in the bureau's London office.

The consequences are tragic for shady Tampa businessman Howard Saint (John Travolta), whose son is killed by the feds. Castle whines to his colleagues that no one was supposed to die, but in the leaden scenario co-written by director Jonathan Hensleigh, Castle clearly could not care less that someone else's pride and joy wound up on a slab.

Egged on by his wife (Laura Harring), Saint gets payback with interest, killing Castle's wife, son, parents and dozens of other relatives at a family reunion. Castle himself is left for dead, but he recovers and returns as the Punisher, an avenging demon intent on making Saint and his loved ones suffer in spades.

In the comics, Castle turned executioner of the wicked at large after losing his family in a random act of violence. In giving him a personal target, the filmmakers have turned Castle into the very thing he's hunting, a depraved killer out to spill as much blood as he can.

Jane's inanimate performance doesn't help. His Castle only seems alive when he's butchering people; with his dead eyes and wooden dialogue, he's like a sleepwalker the rest of the time.

The movie provokes unintentional laughs with its excessive violence and especially with its clumsy efforts to capture Castle shirtless as often as possible to show off Jane's chiseled torso.

Travolta makes for a passable weasel of a heavy, and Will Patton has a moment or two as his faithful lieutenant, whom Castle sets up in a nasty ploy involving Saint's wife. Harring and the rest of the cast are generally just moving targets, including Samantha Mathis as Castle's wife and Roy Scheider as his dad.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster and John Pinette are tossed in as kindly neighbors in a run-down tenement where Castle establishes his revenge headquarters. The three are there only to give Castle someone decent to fight for; otherwise, nothing on screen would differentiate him from the bad guys he's battling.

The one loophole on the Eighth Amendment left by the filmmakers is on the "excessive bail" aspect. Thankfully, you can bail on this awful movie any time you like, and you should do it at the ticket counter by choosing another flick.

"The Punisher," a Lions Gate release, is rated R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity. Running time: 124 minutes. One star out of four.