Undercover police agent Frank Castle's Last Big Assignment has him decked out like National Lampoon's idea of a dangerous Eurotrash kingpin and results in the accidental death of a teenaged novice gunrunner. "Nobody was supposed to die," Castle (Christopher Lambert-alike Thomas Jane) remarks almost as if he cared. But there's no time for remorse: He's off to early retirement and a family reunion in Puerto Rico. His plans for domestic tranquility are shattered when the slain racketeer-in-the-making's father, crime mogul Howard Saint (John Travolta), sends a troop of assassins to execute Castle's kin. As cousins, aunts, uncles and miscellaneous relations are mowed down, Castle and his cut-from-the-same-cloth adventurer father (Roy Scheider) fight back, to impressive effect--but they are outnumbered, and Castle is too late to save his wife and child. Beaten, shot and thrown into the ocean, Castle is left for dead, only to float off to a nearby island where he heals and transforms himself into the emotionally numb but vengeance-hungry super-anti-hero The Punisher.
The very nature of the Punisher character, as originated in the Marvel Comics series, is problematic as far as a rooting interest goes. Although he's still a good man at heart, Castle seems almost robotic in his drive for retribution and is unable to draw any satisfaction from it. With no snappy quips to lighten the atmosphere nor a light at the end of the tunnel to look toward, viewers can't help but feel like they shouldn't be enjoying the creative decimations of the villains at hand. Great moments like Castle unearthing his erroneously erected tombstone and ramming it into Howard Saint's putting green to announce his return from the dead are undercut by the Punisher's need to deny the emotions that fuel him. Holed up in a dilapidated building, he's then forced to bristle Wolverinesquely at his nosy but caring neighbors, including a beautiful waitress, an overly-pierced but sensitive burnout and a sweetly simple man-child, which is almost as ridiculous a scenario as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos playing a) a waitress who's b) living in a slum and c) is friends with any of these people.
Between avoiding that lot and gunning for the Saints, Castle is attacked by a couple of colorful characters who are brought in with little to no foreshadowing or explanation. Unfortunately, this feels like hack editing more than an inventive scripting choice. The black-nailpolished, beringed, tear-tattooed, guitar-playing assassin Harry Heck makes a fabulous entrance but his exit comes far too close to it. And a maniacally grinning killer who bears an uncanny resemblance to the "man from Brussels" who was "six-foot-four and full of muscles" of Men At Work's "Down Under" video fame is dispatched in a method so visceral that the MPAA should create a new rating for it--like NC-17-and-a-half.
John Travolta imbues Howard Saint with the quirky malevolence he's brought to a few of his roles, usually to likable effect. "Maybe he's still alive so he can suffer more," he muses about Castle's seeming indestructability--but he says it as though he's honestly trying to figure out the karmic reason. It's those glimpses of relatability, coupled with the fact that Saint's most nefarious acts are at the beginning of the movie and are in response to his son's death, that by the end make you understand his point of view and feel a little sorry for him. Needless to say, this is not the desired effect. Starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Laura Harring, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Ben Foster. Directed and written by Jonathan Hensleigh. Produced by Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd. A Lions Gate release. Action. Rated R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity. Running time: 124 min