Who’s good and who’s evil?

Dolph Lundgren has an IQ of 160. He was an Olympic athlete, speaks five languages and has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And yet he gave it all up. Why, you ask? Most likely because he had the chance to play one of the coolest comic book heroes of all time – Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher. But as irreplaceable as Lundgren was, he might have some competition. There’s a Frank Castle for the new millennium and a whole lot more punishment to be dispensed.

“The Punisher” (Lions Gate Films) is not a remake of the 1989 film, but rather an entirely new tale. It begins with ex-Navy SEAL and FBI undercover agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) busting up a weapons ring from the inside out. When the smoke and bodies clear, one of the cadavers is identified as the son of local mobster Howard Saint (John Travolta). Saint returns the favor by orchestrating a massacre at the Castle family reunion, killing everyone, including Frank. Or so he thinks. Dead only on the inside, Frank washes up on shore, recovers and reloads. And his plan to deal with Howard Saint and his crew isn’t revenge; it’s punishment.

Thomas Jane should rise from relative obscurity to full-blown stardom after this role. He’s perfect as the determined, cold-as-ice Castle. Oddly enough, Travolta is also great as Howard Saint, whose Tony Soprano-like realness is one of the film’s more subtle attributes. The action scenes are top notch, and the film is a must-see for any tough-guy genre fan.

The film’s minor flaws rest on writer and first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh. Having written some of the best action movies in recent memory, including “The Rock” and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” Hensleigh knows the genre. “The Punisher’s” brutal warfare is a good example of how action savvy he is. But at times, the film becomes too “comic book” for its own good. The dialogue and the dramatic scenes are dealt with in a tongue-in-cheek manner that can detract from what is otherwise a dark and brooding action shoot-’em-up. In the same way that Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” is treated as a myth, “The Punisher” is treated as a comic; it’s intentionally over-the-top, but not necessarily for the better.

But thanks to a great cast and many captivating action sequences, “The Punisher” is an exciting addition to the kick-ass, guns-ablaze revenge genre.

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