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Combat Ready: Thomas Jane arms himself for the weary task of punishing the bad guys.

Pax Tampa

Marvel Comics' least-interesting character debuts in 'The Punisher'

By Richard von Busack

AT MY MALLPLEX, with every ticket to The Punisher you got a free reprint of The Amazing Spider-Man No. 129, as first published in 1974. Much better than the movie. Before he's outwitted (handily) by Spider-Man, we learn that the Punisher is a Marine. "Howcum you're fighting over here?" asks the webslinger, making a reference to Vietnam that the kids won't get. But the question itself could be asked of The Punisher today. The year 2004 echoes the summer of '74 something fierce, with the same skunklike funk of Nixon clinging to today's White House, the same kind of unpopular war raging away. And The Punisher is the perfect Nixonian vigilante; he murders for the sake of law and order.

Spider-Man cleaned the Punisher's clock. Daredevil finished the job, and I see no reason why even some modestly endowed member of the Avengers (Hawkeye, for instance) couldn't take him out either. He was just a guy with a bunch of guns. Why make a movie about the Punisher? It's been done already, in Australia, with Dolph Lundgren, dullest of cinema's action beeves of the 1980s. At the time, it was said Lundgren wasn't given a costume "because they didn't want him to look like a comic-book hero." That skull logo means something to the fans; how many times has the Punisher's death's-head been stretched over those Conestoga wagon-size bellies at the Comics Con? And what do you expect from a movie based on a T-shirt?

A creampuff named Thomas Jane plays Frank Castle, undercover cop ready to retire; he's at the retirement party when his whole family is wiped out by black-clad assassins. One of the demised is former '70s leading man Roy Scheider, whose frightful twinkling eye signals that he wants more out of the part than to just be a dead dad. Some hinted-at Caribbean voodoo raises Castle from the dead, leaving him with a sad little scar the size of a cigarette burn where he got shot in the chest.

The assassins are in the pay of Tampa crime lord John Travolta, whose weaknesses (best friend Will Patton, hot-stuff wife Laura Harring) are spelled out as if on a chalkboard. Castle knows where the killer is (he's "a man of habits," we're told), yet he spends the whole movie avoiding him. And Castle all but holds a press conference (huh?) to prove to the world that the grave couldn't hold him. Doesn't it seem being a vengeful phantom might be more effective?

In a small part, Rebecca Romijn-Stamons is a waitress who, in one scene, says she's spent the weekend "drinking--a lot" and then, in the next scene, is clean and sober and offering gratitude: lured to AA by the amazing way Castle knows how to hurt a guy. The highlight part is Castle's fight with a thug called the Russian (pro wrestler Kevin "Diesel" Nash's tribute to Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Most memorable line, from an assistant hood to an underassistant hood: "You're a small piece of shit, and I don't want the karma of your death on my soul." Floridly put, but a good explanation of why not to buy a ticket to The Punisher.

The Punisher (R; 124 min.), directed and written by Jonathan Hensleigh, photographed by Conrad W. Hall and starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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