There's always some element of stylization to movies adapted from comic books, and there needs to be: Even though it's 2-D, good comic-book art has its own vitality on the page. You can't capture that energy on-screen by going for unvarnished realism, or even pseudo-realism. With its dialogue, its action and its color palette, a good comic-book movie can land you immediately in its new world -- or it can completely lose you in the first five minutes.
"The Punisher," based on a Marvel comic and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh (the screenwriter behind "Die Hard With a Vengeance," "The Rock" and "The Saint"), gets us lost early in the first half-hour and never succeeds in completely luring us in. From the start, Hensleigh doesn't know what tone he wants to strike, and by the time he figures it out, it's too late. This is a brooding, righteous-vengeance fantasy in which a recently retired FBI special agent, Frank Castle (played by Thomas Jane, who appears to have been sculpted out of rock, or at least some sort of plastic clay), goes after crooked Tampa business tycoon Howard Saint (John Travolta, delivering his now-patented elegant-baddie performance).
It's impossible to address what's wrong with "The Punisher" without giving away some plot details, so if you're sensitive to spoilers, you may want to stop reading here.
Saint has killed Castle's wife and young son (Samantha Mathis and Marcus Johns, respectively), as well as the rest of his extended family in a horrific blood bath. Hardened and embittered, Castle hides out in a decrepit Florida apartment building while he plots his revenge against Saint and beefs up his arsenal of weapons; in his off hours, he guzzles Wild Turkey in a depressive stupor. He is no longer Frank Castle: He is now the Punisher, a superhero with no supernatural powers, just a sour attitude and a leather coat (the steamy Florida climate notwithstanding).
The building's other residents -- including a shy slacker with multiple piercings (Ben Foster), a reclusive, well-rounded gent who loves to cook (the appealing John Pinette), and a down-on-her-luck waitress (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who works admirably to bring some life to a cardboard role) -- become his extended family, even though he does his damnedest to resist their friendship. Meanwhile, Laura Harring (so luscious in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"), as Saint's hotsy-totsy wife, Livia, swans around in a series of candy-colored Qiana dresses that look like nighties, but even she's not enough to bring "The Punisher" the color it needs.
Late in the film, Castle delivers a canned-sounding soliloquy about vengeance, turning logistical somersaults to distinguish it from revenge -- even though, of course, the Punisher's actions are about nothing but revenge. This supposedly edifying speech comes after long stretches of unpleasantness, most notably the big massacre, which occurs at a Castle family reunion in Puerto Rico: We hear children screaming as their parents and other relations are gunned down systematically by thugs. Later, there's some nasty business with a set of pliers.
Everything is shot discreetly (by Conrad W. Hall, son of the late and much-lauded cinematographer Conrad L. Hall). Most of the violence occurs off-screen, even though we know very well what's happening. And yet the very tastefulness of this approach almost makes it more offensive, particularly in a protracted scene of a mother and son fleeing the bad guys. The movie wants to show us how high the stakes are -- in other words, we have to know that the evil that has been perpetrated on Castle's family is really, really bad -- but it also wants its visuals to be tidy and safe. While many moviegoers cringe, with good reason, from straight-up violence, there are some ways in which it's more honest than the fine-tuned pussyfooting we get here.
Hensleigh's style is all over the place in "The Punisher": Sometimes he seems to be going for TV-cop-show realism more than comic-book evocativeness. And some of his choices are simply inexplicable: When we first see Romijn-Stamos' character, she's sitting at an ancient, industrial-style sewing machine, stitching an apron; she rises from the machine and ties the apron over her waitress uniform. A waitress who sews -- how novel! But what does any of it mean? Elsewhere, we get a close-up of Castle's beefy, fur-carpeted chest, and the camera rises, slowly, to show us his grim, determined face (which has grown almost as hairy as his pecs, since he's been too depressed to shave). Another director might have added a dash of humor -- "This is beefcake with a mission!" -- but Hensleigh plays this bit of homoerotic folderol completely straight.
Let's not even talk about the dialogue, in which one character exhorts another to "Go with God." Elsewhere, Castle and his wife, pre-massacre, gaze lovingly at their 9-ish son and Castle suggests, "We should have another," to which his wife responds, flushed with enthusiasm, "I'm ready." Cut to shot of an ovulation thermometer -- just kidding, but with nutty dialogue like this, I wouldn't have been surprised. Hensleigh, who co-wrote the script with Michael France, hasn't figured out the difference between comic-book dialogue and language that's merely cartoonish. If you can get past the goofy writing, there's lots of noisy action in "The Punisher," but little of it is particularly exhilarating. In fact, it's more of an endurance test. If you can sit through it, you should consider yourself duly punished.