The Punisher (2004)

(In theaters, April 2004) If they ever made a movie about the audience watching this film, they’d call it The Punished. While the vengeful premise initially feels like a throwback to 80s action movies, The Punisher has none of the overblown charm of its Reagan-era predecessor. Detailing the film’s inanities would take too much time, but not as much as explaining why the film feels so dull and lifeless. The biggest problem with The Punisher isn’t how divorced it is from reality, but how it doesn’t bother to offer a more compelling fantasy universe. Even by the uneven standards of movies adapted from Marvel superhero comics, this one makes no sense, from deserted streets in the middle of Tampa to an impromptu press conference announcing both resurrection and vengeance plans. Supposedly top-notch assassins stroll in and sing their appearance (in a restaurant solely populated with the hero’s three allies) while high explosives are obtained by the truckload by a supposedly dead man (and hauled in an apartment with a cheap lock). Thomas Jane growls in the right places and Laura Harring is scrumptious, but John Travolta’s can’t do better than a charmless supporting performance with the awful material he’s burdened with. The pacing is completely off; don’t be surprised if you end up demanding a lot more punishment. Worse, however, is the film’s tone: not only doesn’t it succeed in imposing an overly dramatic atmosphere to the protagonist’s action (complete with a lot of alcohol; dumb), it feels compelled to introduce wacky neighbours as comic relief. It’s hard to overstate how ineffective those attempts end up: In fact, it’s more appropriate to talk about “exasperation” than “comic relief”. There are two or three effective moments, but don’t worry: You’ve seen them in other, better movies already.

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