Movie: The Punisher

Our Rating: 2.50

Payback, as they say, is a bitch. But couldn't revenge movies be more rewarding to sit through? Two current films that wallow in the principle of lex talionis barely bother to address the moral implications of retributive ass-kicking — and their limited entertainment value isn't about to smooth over the failing.

"The Punisher" is Hollywood's second attempt to interpret Marvel Comics' black-clad vigilante, and it's hard to see why the town keeps bothering. When introduced in the 1970s, the character of homicidal ex-lawman Frank Castle was a dark counterpoint to more virtuous players like Spider-Man — a backhanded reminder that real heroes spare lives when taking them would be just as easy. Make a Castle your protagonist, and you're in imminent danger of stumbling into Spawn territory, in which moral "conflict" means watching a murdering scumbag we're supposed to sympathize with face off against a murdering scumbag we're supposed to hate.

That's basically all the movie has to offer. After his entire family is gunned down by mobsters — in a curiously bloodless group hit — newly retired FBI agent Castle (Thomas Jane) dedicates his otherwise purposeless existence to avenging the atrocity. Thus begins a clandestine campaign of violence and intimidation against Howard Saint (John Travolta), a Tampa crime tycoon whose activities include underworld banking, auto retailing and maybe even the management of a boy band or two. Saint is a pretty public figure, and I'm not sure why Castle doesn't just go to his offices and rough him up immediately; but that would make the movie awfully short, and deny us such "pleasures" as a scene in which Castle torments a trussed-up henchman with threats of physical tortures he has no intention of actually imposing. Talk about having your cake and eating it too: The sequence invites us to revel in the Punisher's sadism while reassuring ourselves that he doesn't really mean it.

Those hypocrisies loom larger than they should, partially because the movie can't decide if it's a comic book or not. When it's being played straight, it's easy to confuse with a typical straight-to-video, eye-for-an-eye screed; a baldly exaggerated approach could have spared us all a lot of hand-wringing. The most stylized moments come from Travolta, whose Saint is simply impossible to take seriously — especially when he's keeping his underlings in line by hauling out the old accuse-one-lackey, kill-the-other trick. He didn't learn that at any Scientology meeting.

There's some suggestion that Castle is dangerously suicidal, though the gambit is nowhere near as affecting as Mel Gibson's anguish in the first Lethal Weapon. "The Punisher's" half-hearted stab at "redemption" is to have Jane share a tenement with a coterie of sad-sack caricatures, including tub-o'-lard comic John Pinette as (what else?) a food addict and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a greasy-spoon waitress with a history of bad boyfriend decisions. (It's a damn shame when women like Romijn-Stamos are forced to suffer through dead-end lives of abuse and despair in Tampa slums, all because nobody has bothered to point out that they could be top models instead.) These innocent bystanders are soon risking their lives for Castle while he continues to exhibit between two and three redeeming qualities. (I lost count.) There's no real reason for them to adopt him as one of their "family" — any more than there is for us to embrace him as one of ours.

In the movie's climactic voice-over, Castle announces his intention to extend his one-man jihad by taking on entire groups of anonymous miscreants. Amid the laundry list of potential targets, you can distinctly hear him declare war on "the sadists." Maybe he should make like Michael Jackson and start with the man in the mirror.

My idea of payback, meanwhile, is knowing that all those amoral automatons who clasped "Kill Bill — Vol. 1" to their hollow, clanking bosoms are about to suffer the worst letdown of their lives. Part One of Tarantino's sword-wielding folly was a thunderingly inhumane film, but at least it held your interest. "Vol. 2" commits the unexpected sin of being flat-out boring. A gratuitous black-and-white prologue shows Uma Thurman's Bride tooling down a winding road, Bernard Herrmann-esque strings slashing in the background as she informs us that she's heartbeats away from her goal of killing Bill. Anyone with medium-term memory knows that's not true: We still haven't seen the Bride dispose of the one-eyed Elle Driver, among other threads left hanging by the temporally fractured narrative. Yet nothing of consequence happens in the entire first hour — which, as it turns out, is appropriate preparation for a terminally inert movie that will show us next to nothing we didn't learn or infer the first time. (Yes, we finally get to hear the Bride's real name, and it proves as inconsequential as anything else in the movie.)

Tarantino's bloodthirsty legions will be shocked to discover that Vol. 2 contains all of one exquisitely choreographed fight scene. What's left? Dialogue sequences. Long, rambling ones, with capable actors doing their best to invest ironic substance in lines that aren't ironic at all — just dorky. Michael Madsen cultivates a certain laid-back malevolence as the sidewinding ex-assassin Budd, but as Elle, a huffy-puffy Darryl Hannah officially ends the roll she was on with "Northfork" and "Casa de los Babys." Meanwhile, Tarantino gets to further indulge his chop-socky fixation with a flashback that shows the Bride-to-be learning the dispensation of death from a true master (Gordon Liu). The bleached-looking segment apes ad nauseam the drastic zooms of kung fu movies — a routine about as edgy as a standup comic parodying the disjointed voice tracks and lip movements in Toho monster flicks.

Speaking of homage, David Carradine gets the expected windfall of screen time as the shadowy puppet master Bill, but the character's quasi-spiritual musings are just riffs on Carradine's role as Caine on the "Kung Fu" TV series. Tarantino bestowed a similar "gift" of nostalgia on Travolta a decade ago; right now, I'll bet the director is burning up the phone lines to Lisa "Blair Warner" Whelchel, talking up this great script he's written for her in which she plays the headmistress of a girls' school. The final confrontation between Bride and Bill — the raison d'┬Étre of both films, if you believe their titles — is a startling anticlimax: Early on, you realize that Tarantino has stopped making an action movie and is attempting to cobble together a character piece. It's too late for that, especially as "Vol. 2" proves unable to honestly address the discrepancy between its leads' over-the-top lifestyles and their supposed inner yearnings. Once you've seen a character disembowel a multitude of Asian gangsters, how much concern can you seriously invest in her family life?

It's probably a waste of breath to point out that this moral dissonance is the logical culmination of modern cinema, which is increasingly fabricated: a) by filmmakers who know nothing about human decency beyond what they've learned at the movies; and b) for audiences whose frame of reference is even narrower. Raise the point to either party, and the only response you're likely to get is, "What else is there?"

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