Sexy Punisher Fits the Crime

Filmmakers who don’t know how to make movies about real people saying and doing real things always turn to (and hide behind) the safer, less demanding special-effects corn of comic books. The Punisher is another product from the folks at Marvel Comics, who were responsible for the piles of Captain Marvels under my bed at the age of 10, after I graduated from Archie Andrews, Nancy and Sluggo. But since he wasn’t invented until 1974-years after I threw away my own comic-book collection-the Punisher is an unknown quantity to me. But here he is onscreen, played by Thomas Jane, a camera-ready 8-by-10 Men’s Health cover in a pec-to-pec race with Hugh Jackman for the competing title of Most Charismatic Hunk of the Decade. So far it’s a draw, although Mr. Jane has clearly been spending more time at the gym.

The Punisher is a handsome stud fighting the rats and hoods of the urban underworld who is brought to life on the screen with a more realistic contemporary strategy than Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk and other flying, wall-scaling, cobweb-weaving, green-skinned, drawing-board superheroes of the pen-and-ink school. He is really Frank Castle, an undercover F.B.I. agent with endless skills, indestructible survival techniques and multiple disguises who is working his last case before retirement. Opening scene: a waterfront in Tampa, Florida, where Frank appears as a multilingual, chain-smoking bleach-blonde Muscle McGurk with a Slavic accent, a sarcastic attitude and a sardonically curled lip in sandals, cool biker shades and a white ice-cream suit-a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Truman Capote. Assignment: intercept an international arms deal by pretending to be a Russian weapons kingpin. In the mêlée that ensues, a rookie suspect is killed who turns out to be the adored son of a powerful and villainous Florida money launderer named Howard Saint (John Travolta, looking portly and bemused, suppressing a laugh at his own dialogue). Frank ditches the stud rags and retires on schedule from all this hugga-mugga to Puerto Rico to spend quality time with his wife, son and relatives at a beach-resort family reunion. But between pouring piña coladas and throwing another burger on the barbie, his new arch enemy dispatches a flotilla of terrorists to savagely annihilate the entire family. In a sequence few people will be able to watch with both eyes open, children are machine-gunned, women are stabbed and hacked to death with butcher knives, and more than 30 of Frank’s nearest and dearest are massacred gangland-style, including his father (Roy Scheider in a cameo). Even Frank is left for dead. But this is a comic book: Like Tarzan, Frank no die. Riddled with bullets, he is miraculously rescued from a flaming, gasoline-soaked boat dock by a fisherman who urges him to seek revenge for the deaths of his own wife and little boy. With locked eyebrows and a jaw-grinding look of anger and passion, he turns into what society will soon come to dread as the Punisher. The rest of the movie, which clocks in at two hours plus, is a staged competition between two human pit bulls to see who can dish out the most creative and lethal number of tortures, punishments, and homicides. Hell hath no fury like a superhunk scorned.

The violence and cruelty are intolerable, and interminable. But there is also an occasional flash of humor. Two killers stop between massacres to argue over the quality of Cuban vs. Honduran cigars. In a condemned warehouse on the edge of a demolition dump where Frank hides out, three freaky neighbors (obese opera-loving chef John Pinette, overly pierced druggie Ben Foster and morose sex-abuse victim Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) dance around to the “La donna e mobile” aria, oblivious to the fact that the sordid building is in the process of being demolished around them by the Punisher as his body is thrown through the walls and plate-glass windows and tossed down a flight of stairs. Director Jonathan Hensleigh, who doesn’t have a clue what to do with real people but really kicks butt piling on the depravity and bloodshed when they get their bones smashed and their brains splattered across the landscape, owes everything he knows to Quentin Tarantino. This is not something to be proud of.

In fact, there isn’t a moment in The Punisher that isn’t borrowed or stolen from another movie. Mr. Travolta, who gets second billing to the absurdly sexy dynamo Mr. Jane, borrows his entire performance from the almost identical wacko he played in Swordfish , where the entire movie was stolen by another absurdly sexy dynamo, Hugh Jackman. Mr. Jane, who has played everything from Vincent D’Onofrio’s gay lover in the awful Velocity of Gary to a memorable Mickey Mantle in Billy Crystal’s excellent HBO production of 61* , is more than just another pretty face. He’s an accomplished stage actor of real range, versatility and charm, who carves more out of the cardboard title role of The Punisher than seems logically possible. The urban-revenge motif is a steal from at least half a dozen movies starring the late Charles Bronson-nothing original here, but as the pain intensifies and the corpses mount, it is clear that nothing can stop the Punisher in time for the sequel. Burned, stabbed, shot, sliced, diced, and thrown from the tops of bridges and buildings by assorted sadists, rapists, monsters and psychos, Mr. Jane saves the best punishment of all for Mr. Travolta, dragged halfway across Tampa in flames with his foot tied to an exploding automobile. How to explain these career lapses? The money, it goes without saying, was good enough to add another jet to Mr. Travolta’s already crowded hangar. A few more of these expensive potboilers, and he can start his own airline.

Let Them Eat Cabaret

Balsamic vinegar and Broadway ballads? The idea might not be as silly as it sounds. Welcome to an idea called “Chef’s Theater: A Musical Feast.” Since it opened 14 years ago on West 47 Street in a part of the old Edison Theater that once housed the nude scandal Oh! Calcutta , the steamboat-size entertainment emporium called the Supper Club has played host to a number of failed enterprises. Ever in search of new ways to keep New Yorkers out at night, the Supper Club has now come up with a new concept that features a live band, a staged revue, a celebrity performer and a different chef every week who prepares a three-course gourmet dinner that is then devoured by a hungry audience. This cabaret and Cuisinart combo is a fun idea that just might catch on.

Here’s how it works. On the rainy night I checked it out, the gridlock that will soon paralyze the city permanently if the insane plans to build a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side are foolishly allowed to materialize made me almost an hour late for the 7:30 warm-up. The celebrity chef was Tyler Florence, the popular, tousled-haired star of the Food Network famous for dashing around the country making house calls to frazzled housewives who have set their kitchens on fire with blow torches meant for their crème brûlée. He insists he’s a serious practitioner of everything culinary, despite being named the Sexiest Chef of 2003 in one of those frivolous polls conducted by People magazine. The place was packed with 300 hungry hedonists who paid $115 to $125 apiece to be in on the ground floor of something new on the block. A lady sommelier poured five different wines while three ebullient chorus kids sang a song by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty called “A Meal to Remember.” Happily, I missed the appetizer of blood-raw tuna with soy-lime vinaigrette, which I consider only slightly less appealing than toenail fungus. But the proscenium stage was a marvel to behold-a state-of-the-art kitchen by veteran Broadway set designer Beowulf Boritt that could bring tears of envy to the eyes of both seasoned pros and cave dwellers in claustrophobic closets whose spécialité de la maison is frozen fajitas from Food Emporium. In fact, during the amiable Q&A session where each chef gets grilled by his diners, one person asked: “What do you do if you live in an apartment so small there is no room for a stove?”

Mr. Florence was undaunted. Friendly and floppy, he bounced around chopping and dicing under bright stage lights, every movement blown up on a large television screen above the spotless pots and pans from his own line of cookware (on sale in the lobby, where he autographed his brand-new cookbook for women of all ages, a few of whom admitted to me they didn’t know jambalaya from Jell-O.) My enthusiasm moved up a notch with the entrée, a perfectly crisp pan-roasted baby chicken prepared with a garden purée of fresh mint, haricots verts and fava beans while Mr. Florence cheerfully instructed us how to say poussin , delivered a stern lecture on why we should never buy anything but sea salt (“no iodine”)-although I noticed that the shakers on every table contained the same reviled Morton’s shamefully nesting in my cupboard at home-and talked jubilantly about superior cuts of imported jambon. I don’t know what future weeks will provide, but Mr. Florence was quite a jambon himself. He talked to the asparagus, used the food processor the way Roseanne uses the microwave and crooned a Sinatra imitation of “The Summer Wind” with the band like Dennis the Menace on hormones.

While the cabaret sections of the show leave something to be desired (especially a number called “I’m Gonna Teach You How to Cook”: “Keep your George Clooney / Keep your Clark Gable / My man’s gotta have/ A hot kitchen table”), the patter and the energy are unmistakable. After intermission, the guest star of the week, feisty Tony winner Michele Pawk, sang “I Can Cook Too” fast but not always in tune, and a wine was served that tasted to me like a combination of raspberry jam and dirt. The topic “Cooking Is Sexy” found Mr. Florence in his element, and when he sang with the band in his chef’s apron over his tight jeans, the felines in the audience all but threw their panties at the stage. It was all over by 10, but nobody wanted to leave. For bravehearts who never count calories, there was an 11 p.m. dessert show featuring rum cakes and the noisy cabaret debut of Michael Cavanaugh, who sings all those Billy Joel songs in Movin’ Out. Running a restaurant and running a theater are two different things, both fraught with potential disaster. “Chef’s Theater,” which seats 300 people and does both, is tantamount to early ulcers. The element of risk is self-evident: Will the brandy go up in flames? Will the soufflé fall? How do you rehearse the band and check the freshness of the finan haddie at the same time? Meanwhile, it’s a novel idea that is booked for the first 13 weeks. Among the upcoming musical talents are Alice Ripley, Andrew Lippa, Adam Pascal and La Chanze. The chefs include legends from Lutece, Le Cirque and the French Culinary Institute. O.K., “Chef’s Theater” is not The Boy From Oz, but give it time. In New York, food is always show business. In the Apple, we always need a new music venue, and no matter what you do at night, you still gotta eat.