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Bad comic spawns an even worse movie

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THE PUNISHER — * 1/2 — Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, torture, vulgarity, brief drugs, brief sex).

The comic-book series that spawned "The Punisher" is one of the worst out there, limited in scope and characterizations. The title character is merely a generic vigilante.

However, that hasn't stopped it from already serving as the basis for one bad feature film, the 1989 dud that starred Dolph Lundgren. Nearly 20 years later here comes another version that is even worse. In fact, this film is the worst comics-derived movie in recent memory — a brainless revenge-thriller that thinks it is smarter and more clever than it actually is.

There's little to distinguish "The Punisher" from any number of other routine thrillers. And except for an extended sequence in which the film turns into a sitcom — essentially "The Punisher and His Wacky Neighbors" — it would be completely unwatchable.

The title character is Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), an undercover FBI agent who's retiring to England with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son (Marcus Johnson). Or so he thinks. His last case results in a death that will come back to haunt him.

The dead man's father is Howard Saint (John Travolta), a powerful crime lord who sics his goons on Frank's family, killing all of them. Frank survives and vows to even the score against Saint and his family — and then some.

Jonathan Hensleigh's broad directorial strokes are a real problem, but worse is the script, which he co-wrote, with some of the most atrocious dialogue and insipid one-liners ever.

The performances are all over the place, and the only time Jane really seems comfortable is when his character is in revenge mode. As you might expect, Travolta is once again a cartoonish villain.

"The Punisher" is rated R for graphic scenes of action violence (shootings, stabbing, beatings, violence against women and explosive mayhem), graphic gore, occasional use of strong sexual profanity and sexual slang terms, two scenes of torture (one done for laughs), brief drug content (references to drug use), and brief sexual contact. Running time: 124 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com