The second attempt to bring a dark corner of the Marvel comic-book universe to the screen, this gloomy revenge story is undermined by its inconsistent tone. Tampa-based undercover operative Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is ready to stop dodging bullets and take a quiet bureaucratic gig in London so he can spend time with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and young son. But his last job goes terribly wrong, ending in a shootout that kills Bobby Saint (James Carpinello), the son of vicious money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta). At the behest of his vengeful wife, Livia (Laura Harring), Saint orders the slaughter of Castle's extended clan during their sun-kissed family reunion in Puerto Rico, leaving Castle himself for last. Shot, beaten, burned, half-drowned and bereft, Castle nevertheless survives, at least physically. He moves into a rundown apartment building, puzzles his eccentric neighbors — extravagantly pierced sad-sack Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), portly opera lover Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette) and unlucky-in-love waitress Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) — with his mysterious comings and goings and sets about systematically destroying Saint's life. The trouble with comic-book-origin stories is that the bulk of the story leads up to whatever the character is popular for doing. Before The Punisher starts punishing, Frank Castle must first be happy, then sink to the depths of despair and, finally, crawl out of his law-abiding family-man skin and into a nihilistic attitude befitting his iconic death's head t-shirt. Jane is a strong enough actor to play both Castle and the embittered, self-loathing killing machine he becomes, but he's in an impossible bind, giving a consistently restrained, introspective performance in a film that isn't sure whether it wants to be smart-alecky or gritty. The comic-book Punisher, who debuted in 1974 and developed over the years from misguided vigilante to tormented sociopath, got a recent face-lift from Garth Ennis, whose stories were a major uncredited influence on Michael France's screenplay. Ennis added an element of pitch-black humor to the mythos, along with Spacker Dave, Mr. Bumpo and Joan; unfortunately, neither France nor director Jonathan Hensleigh is able to successfully balance brutality and sly absurdity. Bumpo, Dave and Joan are treated like nutty sitcom neighbors, always bursting in at the wrong time to blandly comic effect, and the strained quips, physical gags and Travolta's fleshy, showboating turn as Howard Saint all belong in a different film from Jane's tormented exterminating angel.