You worry about the people who made The Punisher. Not that it isn't entertaining in its own brutish, merciless manner; it's an enthusiastic, slick, explosive outing for Marvel's meanest comic-book character. Not that the stunts aren't impressive - check out the spectacular car chase. Not that the titular avenger doesn't look at least low-rent cool: just look at the skull emblazoned on his chest, the Matrix leather jacket and the tree-sized gun.
It's just so nasty. Face-piercings are plucked out; children are killed; a villain is dragged behind a car as he burns to death. No wonder you end up suffering from overkill. Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher (Jane), is Dirty Harry on steroids, a posterboy for fascism whose screw-the-rules mentality, while understandable, is never challenged. "In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate," he gurns. "In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue natural justice." We're supposed to cheer him or fear him. The urge is, however, to jeer at him.
There are hints that debuting writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (who previously scribbled Die Hard With A Vengeance and Armageddon) understands the over-earnest, slightly ridiculous nature of the material. But the closing credits are nigh before he hits the right tone, while Jane is inscrutable throughout. From the Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck school of action acting, he rarely varies his frown, looking like he's doing long division while dropping a log. The boy should definitely eat more fibre.
Will Patton is more interesting as John Travolta's henchbloke, though the makers appear to think it daring that his character is gay. And X-babe Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Mulholland Drive's Laura Harring lend a slinky alternative to all the testosterone. As for JT himself... Well, he phones in another of his suave, bland baddies in a role that's almost identical to his Swordfish villain.
Hensleigh does have an eye for action: Castle's rib-smashing scrap with a titanic thug is a funny, OTT highlight. But this is one of the few occasions when The Punisher comes close to rewarding its audience for their tolerance and strong stomachs.
With its brains splattered on the sidewalk, The Punisher balances irony with idiocy. You may laugh with it. You will laugh at it.