Based on the Marvel Comics title, "The Punisher" is about Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), a former Delta Force operative who devotes his life and his one apparent facial expression to killing the people who killed his family. By "family," I don't mean just his wife and son -- although they're gunned down, too -- but the entire clan: mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, the caterers.
The assassins work for the shady, crypto-Latin "nightclub owner" Howard Saint (John Travolta), whose son died in the crossfire of one of Castle's assignments. Saint is committed to revenge, although his frosty wife Livia (Laura Harring) orders the family-wide hit on the Castles. Obviously, the Saints missed somebody.
Directed and co-written by Jonathan Hensleigh, the movie is as grim and grave as the comic book. But it lacks atmosphere. It's often illogical and drubs you numb with its single dimension: noisy retribution. There are rare bouts of fun. Certainly, none of them are courtesy of Travolta, who is inexplicably swishy and campy. He seems trapped, obliviously, in self-parody.
Seeking revenge, Castle traces Livia to Tampa, spies on the family's chief henchman (Will Patton), and makes Saint's money-laundering services seem suspect to his Cuban clientele. He moves into a gnarly industrial tenement, where he creates an elaborate workshop. The building's most visible residents happen to be a trio of outcasts: the lovable slob (John Pinette); the nervous kid whose face is a gallery of piercings (Ben Foster); and the waitress (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in hiding from her latest abusive boyfriend.
They try to lighten up Castle and, to little avail, invite this large brooder into their freaky family. His afternoons, though, are filled with schemes to get at Saint, and his nights are for Wild Turkey binges.
Out on his missions, Castle is clad in the trademark black T-shirt with its iconic long, white skull. Wearing it is an act of sentimentality (it was a gift from his late son), yet the shirt is now so commonplace in the real world that Castle looks like a fan of the comic book, not the star of the movie. The Punisher has no super powers -- though, in the film, being bludgeoned, shot, doused with gasoline and nearly blown up, then walking away must make him a mutant of some kind. He just has a daunting physique, a zillion guns and, as Jane plays it, a sinking seriousness.
"The Punisher" rarely gets out of its bad mood, which is forgivable, but the grimness has no witty, original, or resonant accompaniment. If you've seen one rogue law enforcer. . . The melancholy is so thick that the movie can't be bothered to move faster than 10 miles per hour. (In 1989, Dolph Lundgren starred in a version that at least hit the speed limit.)
There is an effective sequence, though, between Castle and a big Russian played by Kevin Nash, the professional wrestler, whom Saint sends over to finish off Castle. Throwing each other through walls, they demolish Castle's apartment, but they snap the movie awake with something beautifully close to style.
Mostly, though, "The Punisher" makes a fetish of torture. In one scene, Patton removes Foster's piercings. But what's deadening about the sequence is not the pointlessness but the indifference to the pain inflicted. "The Punisher" has the misfortune of opening the same month as the fleet adaptation of "Hellboy" and the same weekend as the heavenly second installment of "Kill Bill." Both feature brutalizing avengers, too, but they take kernels of violence and make popcorn.
"The Punisher" is merely thrill-less garbage that aspires to franchisehood. (Good luck.) The vengeance holds no catharsis; it provokes no sensation. Death just sits there on screen.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.