Among the recent spate of comic-book movies, from Spider-Man to the X-Men, The Punisher is unique. In 1974, Marvel Comics came up with the character of Frank Castle, a loner bent on vengeance. No one cared that Frank had no secret identity or supernatural gifts. The 1970s were a rich period for movie vigilantes — Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry — so Frank fit in. The question now is: Will Frank — still a hit on the page as written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Lewis Larosa — find a place at the multiplex?
Let's hope so. The Punisher has a lot going for it. Thomas Jane, so good as Mickey Mantle in HBO's 61* and even better in the upcoming film Stander, finds the fight and the fear in Frank, allowing flashes of humor to surface in this former FBI agent. And John Travolta goes gloriously over the top as Howard Saint, the Florida tycoon who puts a hit out on Frank when a sting operation, headed by Frank, results in the death of Howard's son. It's Howard's wife, Livia (luscious Laura Elena Harring), who orders the hit on Frank's whole family, conveniently vacationing in Puerto Rico. The slaughter, as staged by Jonathan Hensleigh in his directing debut, is R-rated brutal. But it's true to the bleak spirit of the piece and provides the reason that Frank appoints himself the Punisher. What doesn't work is Frank's sentimental bond with three other bruised misfits, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster and John Pinette, and the way the film rotely connects the dots once Frank works out a punishment for Howard — boring away at him from inside his private circle. Until then, The Punisher laudably exposes the dark core of the human heart.