[Screen It]

(2004) (Tom Jane, John Travolta) (R)

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Action/Adventure: After his entire family is wiped out and he's left for dead, a retired FBI agent sets out to get revenge on all of those who wronged him.
Frank Castle (TOM JANE) is a former Delta Force op and current FBI agent who's looking forward to his retirement with wife Maria (SAMANTHA MATHIS) and young son Will (MARCUS JOHNS).

Yet, the inadvertent death of Bobby Saint (JAMES CARPINELLO) on an undercover assignment has left Frank a marked man. The victim's father, Tampa businessman and crime boss Howard Saint (JOHN TRAVOLTA) wants Frank's blood, while his socialite wife Livia Saint (LAURA HARRING) demands that their vengeance go one step farther. Accordingly, she orders Howard's right-hand man, Quentin Glass (WILL PATTON), not only to kill Frank, but his entire immediate and extended family as well.

Thus, at a Castle family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint's men massacre Frank's entire family -- including his father Frank Castle Sr. (ROY SCHEIDER) -- believing they've killed him as well. Yet, he barely survives the attack and takes months to recuperate. After returning to the States, Frank takes up residence in a low-end apartment where his neighbors -- the heavily pierced Dave (BEN FOSTER), cook wannabe Mr. Bumpo (JOHN PINETTE) and ex-addict Joan (REBECCA ROMIJN-STAMOS) -- wonder who he is and what he's up to.

As they eventually crack his toughened social shell, they soon discover themselves in a dangerous world where Frank plots to get revenge. Whether it's manipulating Saint's own men -- such as Quentin, lowly goon Micky Ducka (EDDIE JEMISON) and other son John Saint (JAMES CARPINELLO) -- or outright attacking those who wronged him, Frank is determined not to stop until everyone who's responsible is dead.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
One of the immutable laws of physics is that for every reaction, there's an equal and opposite reaction. While movies aren't necessarily known for abiding by the known laws of that science, they do follow that particular one in a push equals shove fashion. Just think about how many films have heroes going after the villains who've done something wrong, and then unleashing some cinematic justice on them. Considering the bigger is louder mentality of most usual Hollywood offerings, however, the resultant shove is usually a bit harder than the initial push.

Such is the case in vigilante films, particularly when they're based on pre-existing comic book characters. Accordingly, and taking into account the nature of its title, when the villains take out the hero's family in "The Punisher," you know that they're going to face some serious comeuppance. Following the path blazed by a plethora of vengeful cinematic sorts, Frank Castle is out for revenge.

Yet, unlike many of his comic book brethren, this hero doesn't possess superhero powers or even cool gadgets and high tech weaponry to battle the bad guys. Instead, he's just a buff ex-Delta Force op and FBI agent who has nothing to lose and a whole bunch of vengeful satisfaction to gain by dispatching the villains.

Such is the setup in director Jonathan Hensleigh's (making his debut after penning the likes of "Armageddon" and "Die Hard with a Vengeance") adaptation of the cult comic favorite. Of course, serious fans of the work know that it's already been turned into a movie once before, back in 1989 when Dolph Lundgren embodied the vengeful survivor, but couldn't escape the straight to video death that awaited his film. I never saw that one and haven't had the pleasure of reading the comic, so any comparisons to the source material or earlier incarnations are out the window.

As a standalone picture, the offering has its moments, but it's all over the board in terms of tone and style, and lifts elements from so many other works that it never really gains an identity of its own. In a surprisingly crowded month of other revenge flicks (most notably "Walking Tall" and "Kill Bill Vol. 2"), this one fares a tiny bit better than the first picture, but considerably pales in comparison to the latter.

The basic plot is about as old as the ages, and Hensleigh and co-screenwriter Michael France ("Goldeneye," "Cliffhanger") ably sets up the scenario that will drive the plot. After retiring from active service where his last duty resulted in the death of a gangster's adult son, a man becomes the victim of the first instance of vengeance at the hands of the gangster's men. He barely survives that attack and after months of recuperation is then driven by the need to evoke justice for his lost family members.

That's all fine and dandy and it certainly fuels the picture from beginning to end. And, shock of all shocks, actor Tom Jane ("Dreamcatcher," "The Sweetest Thing") actually works in the role, having obviously buffed up for the part. Of course, he isn't playing much more than the stoic, Clint Eastwood type of character who says little but carries a big stick and chip on his shoulder. In this era of more "believability," however, he also has to act like the Timex watch that takes a beating but keeps on ticking.

Yes, our hero, much like the last version of James Bond, gets smashed around like a rag doll. I suppose that's supposed to make him more sympathetic to viewers (as if having his entire family wiped out isn't enough), but those looking for this sort of picture don't want to see weak heroes. Accordingly, it's not long before that abuse stops and he opens up his own unique "can of whoop ass" to take care of business.

It's too bad that several problems lie in his way. I'm not talking about the law (that's strangely absent considering all of the resultant mayhem occurring in downtown Tampa), however, but various film difficulties. For one, the script just isn't original, smart or imaginative enough in handling such matters. Sure, there are some "fun" action scenes (particularly an extended and quite brutal fight with a large Russian that's oddly juxtaposed against otherwise light material), and those longing for even more cinematic revenge will clearly have their appetite satiated.

Yet, beyond the fine details that set it apart, we've seen all of this before, and nearly countless times at that. The bigger problem, however, is in the protagonist's competition. While Will Patton ("The Mothman Prophecies," "Remember the Titans") is appropriately evil (and gay to boot), the main villain -- Howard Saint -- is about as bland as they come. It certainly doesn't help matters that John Travolta's ("Basic," "Swordfish) portrayal of him is about as flat and unexciting as you're likely to see in a film such as this. Heck, even the mean socialite wife character played by Laura Harring ("Willard," "John Q") seems more dangerous. Travolta can be good in the right roles, but he feels like he's sleepwalking through this one.

That lack of vigor, coupled with the uneven tone and pacing don't do the film any grand favors. Whereas momentum and viewer involvement in the hero's actions should be increasing with each minute (for a film like this), the slapdash way in which everything plays out prevents that from occurring. It's as if the filmmakers can't decide whether to make a picture that appeals to younger viewers (despite the R rating) or adult action fans. That indecision ultimately undermines the effort.

Ben Foster ("Big Trouble," "Get Over It") and John Pinette ("Duets," "Simon Sez") are present as some comic relief type characters, and the film does have some decent, if incongruous such moments. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos ("X2," "Femme Fatale") shows up as a potential love interest (and/or piece of eye candy for the presumably male-dominated target audience), but since we know the hero still grieves for his dead wife -- briefly played by Samantha Mathis ("Rules of Attraction," "American Psycho") -- we automatically know that won't end up going anywhere.

Which pretty much holds true for the picture in terms of breaking any new ground in the vigilante sub-genre of moviemaking. While it offers some decent action sequences from time to time, the overall effort just isn't particularly novel, noteworthy or memorable. Okay for diehard fans of this sort of offering, but probably a possible pass for most everyone else, "The Punisher" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 24, 2004 / Posted April 16, 2004

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