Gary Susman
May 13, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Comics fans may have worried that indie studio Artisan’s upcoming adaptation of ”The Punisher,” starring Thomas Jane, wouldn’t have enough firepower to match the blowout Hollywood productions of Marvel superhero films like ”Spider-Man,” ”Daredevil,” and the X-Men movies. But the movie is getting a boost with the casting of John Travolta as the movie’s villain.

According to trade reports, Travolta will play Howard Saint, a man who, like Jane’s Frank Castle, channeled his grief over his child’s murder into violent vigilante vengeance. But while Castle fights criminals as The Punisher, Saint becomes a top underworld figure, though he moves easily in a high-society sphere that’s unaware of his moonlighting as a crime kingpin. ”Howard Saint is not a one-dimensional villain, but a real person with a believable character arc,” Artisan production president Richard Saperstein tells Variety. ”John brings intelligence and humanity to that character.”

Though Travolta is skilled at villainy (see ”Broken Arrow” or ”Face/Off”) as well as heroism, and his name still attracts attention, he’s in need of yet another comeback these days. His latest film, March’s military thriller ”Basic,” has earned just $26.6 million in seven weeks of release. No wonder he wants to attach himself to the hitmaking Marvel name. The movie shoots in July in Florida, with an eye toward a summer 2004 release.

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