The Punisher is based on a Marvel comic book, but there’s little that’s Marvelous about it. Early on, Frank Castle (Tom Jane), a recently retired FBI agent, sees everyone at his family reunion, including his wife and son, mowed down by a team of men in black toting huge guns. You may feel a tug of dismay at the flatness of the staging, the crude come-on of a movie that asks you to get riled up over the slaughter of characters it has barely introduced. Surely this must be the setup for something a little less…basic.
Castle gets shot in the chest and exploded into the water, but somehow he survives with hardly a mark. (That somehow is never explained. Whatever.) He then seeks vengeance on the man behind the mayhem: Howard Saint (John Travolta), a silky Mr. Big whose own son was killed during Castle’s final undercover op.
Since the movie is called ”The Punisher,” I assumed Castle would reinvent himself as some sort of badass sadist alter ego. Well, here’s what the alter ego consists of: He puts on a T-shirt adorned with a skull logo that might have been lifted off a 20-year-old Megadeth album; he soups up his car so that it looks like Mel Gibson’s demon-mobile in ”Mad Max”; he dons a floor-length leather coat; and that’s about it. Oh, I forgot: Jane lowers his voice by an octave so that he can utter every line in an I-mean-business monotone glum enough to make Steven Seagal sound like John Gielgud.
”The Punisher” is a moronically inept and tedious piece of death-wish trash. The character, when he originally appeared in 1974, was a brooding Vietnam veteran who drew on his war experience to avenge his family’s death — an overheated premise echoed three years later in Hollywood’s first Vietnam film, ”Rolling Thunder.” Stripped of its topical context (and now set in darkest Tampa), ”The Punisher” has been turned into the revenge-thriller equivalent of generic oatmeal. It’s a flavorless two hours of blood, bullets, and sado swagger.
Castle spends too much time getting to know his neighbors, who include Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and ”Six Feet Under”’s Ben Foster as a grunge sissy with three lip rings, and he fights too many assassins, notably a giant Russian in the film’s one vaguely diverting action scene. Why doesn’t he just go after Travolta in his marbly lair? It’s a measure of the movie’s incompetence that this villain remains oddly exposed, surrounded by feckless associates and bodyguards, but Castle takes forever to get to him. Travolta has done his sinister mock seethe once too often, and he makes the added mistake of playing Saint as a bit of a nervous Nellie. By the end, I wasn’t rooting for vengeance. I was rooting for Travolta’s haughty-bad-guy tics to be put out of their misery.