The last real icon created by Marvel Comics, The Punisher began life as a bad-guy variation on Charles Bronson's Death Wish vigilante in the '70s, turned into a grotesque version of a law-and-order hero in the Reagan '80s (even spawning a direct-to-video Dolph Lundgren vehicle), and withered away in the Clinton years. More recently, he experienced a black-comedy revival in the hands of writer Garth Ennis, but the latest film version doesn't have much to do with that. A return to the character's righteous, murdering '80s ways, 2004's The Punisher seems all too of-the-moment now that "an eye for an eye" has become national policy.
Shortly after The Punisher opens, thugs hired by overacting Tampa gang lord John Travolta turn a family reunion into the bloodiest social gathering since Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" video. Robbing recently retired undercover FBI officer Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) of his wife, child, father (an apparently eager-to-work Roy Scheider), and a handful of aunts, uncles, and cousins, Travolta's otherwise-thorough henchmen only stop short of making sure that the man himself has died. When he resurfaces, Jane returns to Tampa to exact revenge.
And that's the movie, a revenge scenario so simple it could have been created on a playground. In the right hands, it might have worked: John Woo could have turned it into a bullet-drenched melodrama, some kind of crazy variation on In The Bedroom. With Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino turns a similar scenario into a meditation on honor, justice, and a century of different styles of cinematic violence. Sadly, The Punisher is about little more than bullets hitting bone, and how good it might feel to be on the right end of a gun.
Armageddon screenwriter turned first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh displays a lot of enthusiasm for stormy lighting, as well as a fashion photographer's skill at putting his actors in memorable poses, but the whole show is watching Jane mow down the bad guys, taking the occasional breather to hang out with new friends Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and her misfit hangers-on, and to drown his sorrows in a bottle of Wild Turkey. (The brand is featured so prominently that it must be product placement, but is "the drink of choice for bloodthirsty gunmen" a desirable tagline?) There's not even a hint of suspense over the outcome; Jane is portrayed as such an unstoppable machine that only professional wrestler Kevin Nash is made to look like a formidable adversary.
The Punisher has one inspired sequence. Wearing a teardrop tattoo, a Memphis hit man serenades Jane before attempting to kill him. The scene lasts about a minute. The movie goes on much longer.