The allure of the Punisher, Marvel comics’ revenge-driven anti-hero, was that his sympathetic backstory—involving the systematic execution of his family—was largely overshadowed by his methodical means of murderous justice. Yet The Punisher, directed by long-time action film screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (Armageddon, Die Hard with a Vengeance), is a comic book-based bomb that, despite providing lots of R-rated mayhem, unwisely attempts to soften up its bloodthirsty protagonist. Thomas Jane stars as Frank Castle, a special ops officer whose family is killed as payback for Castle’s role in the death of crime boss Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son. After finishing off his wife (Samantha Mathis) and kid, Saint’s henchmen shoot Castle through the heart, but the bullet only brings a figurative end to his life. Castle miraculously rises from his watery grave reborn as the Punisher, an efficient killing machine whose only goal in life is to destroy Saint’s organized crime empire.
The Punisher orchestrates his enemy’s downfall by manipulating him into killing the ones he loves, but the film’s attempts at noir nastiness are sabotaged by Jane’s goofy furrowed-brow performance and solemn voice-over narration, in which the avenging angel fires off clichéd laughers such as “If you want peace, prepare for war.” As he sets about destroying Saint’s life, big Pun picks up some misfit friends (an overweight opera-lover, a pierced recluse, and an abused waitress played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) who reliably articulate the obvious. “You’re one of us. You’re family,” one of them tells our hero in a moment of surrogate familial love, but this leaden subplot mistakenly humanizes a character whose primary appeal is his tortured inhumanity. At least Travolta, decked out in slick Armani suits, doesn’t muck up his one-dimensional role as the oily Saint, a kingpin who values loyalty—as well as his pitiless trophy wife Livia (Laura Harring)—above all else. Even so, the rather ordinary Saint isn’t nearly colorful or crazy enough to counterbalance Jane’s listless Punisher.
A blond Russian hitman (wrestler Kevin Nash) has a comical throwdown with the Punisher set to Verdi’s “La Donna E Mobile,” and though the scene provides a momentary respite from Carlo Siliotto’s drearily melancholic score, it’s unclear whether this Russkie’s physical similarity to Rocky IV‘s Drago (who was played by Dolph Lundgren, star of the original 1989 B-movie version of The Punisher) is intentional or not. Either way, it was the only instance in Hensleigh’s film when my mind felt even mildly engaged. “Good memories can save your life,” Joan tells the Punisher after catching him obliterating his misery with a bottle of Wild Turkey. If she’s right, then memories of The Punisher may actually be bad for your health.