The film opens with FBI Special Agent Frank Castle (Tom Jane) undercover working the last drug bust of his career. The bust goes bad when one of millionaire businessman/bad guy Howard Saint's (John Travolta) sons winds up dead. That wasn't supposed to happen but there's no way to take it back, so Castle goes on with his retirement from service as planned. A family man through and through, Castle celebrates his new life of leisure with a family reunion in Puerto Rico. Why Puerto Rico? Heaven only knows, but that's where the happy gathering takes place, setting up a picturesque backdrop for the total annihilation of Castle's family. Seems Howard Saint isn't one to forgive and forget. Egged on by his sultry - and vicious - wife, Livia (Laura Harring), Saint ordered the massacre of everyone dear to Castle. But there's one slight hitch Saint didn't anticipate, Castle survives a vicious beating, being shot in the chest at point blank range, and getting blown up in a fiery explosion. How does he survive? Don't ask, and try to remember this is based on a comic book. Not everything has to be grounded in reality. Questioning the hows and whys will only lead to endless frustration.
Castle lives on after the death of his loved ones, but other than his lust for revenge, he's pretty much dead inside. Moving into a rundown apartment, he gets back into top physical shape while plotting how he can best take down Saint. It's not just revenge Castle's after, he wants to punish Saint (hence the nickname The Punisher rather than The Revenger). Castle wants Howard to suffer emotionally and physically until he draws his last breath. How he does that is by concocting an intricate plan involving Saint's wife, Saint's lawyer, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and by screwing with Saint's lucrative money-laundering business.
Frank Castle aka The Punisher isn't a superhero. He's an American anti-hero, motivated by the need for revenge, working outside the law - a lone wolf focused on the kill. No leaping off of tall buildings or slinging webs for this comic book hero. Basically special effects-free, "The Punisher" portrays violence with unflinching realism. People bleed and die, the gun battles play out like, well, battles with guns - not well-choreographed ballet moves. Since Castle's an expert with guns and knives, both are used on film to dispatch the bad guys as brutally as necessary to get the job done.
Screenwriter/first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh turned back the pages to the 1970s, capturing the feel of the classic "Dirty Harry" and "French Connection" films. When Tom Jane as Castle engages in brutal hand-to-hand combat with The Russian (Kevin Nash), not once do you ever get the feeling this fight was meticulously planned out - and that's really saying something for both the actors, the stunt coordinator, and the director. So often you see onscreen fights where everything feels too precise, too mapped out, with weapons too conveniently placed. In "The Punisher," Hensleigh and Jane manage to make all the fight scenes feel so organic that not once are you pulled out of the movie. After years of computer generated effects, "The Punisher," with all its bloodshed and violence, is actually a refreshing change of pace.
As for the acting, Tom Jane does a commendable job of taking on a role based on a comic book character and making it feel multi-dimensional. It's not a very verbal role, but Jane has the ability to do more with a look than a lot of actors can convey with a lengthy monologue. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster and John Pinette give the film its heart, and provide the comic relief so necessary in a film of this sort. Travolta and Patton make quite a team, with Travolta almost but not quite taking his role over the top. Overall, the acting is restrained and in keeping with the tone of the movie.
"The Punisher" is definitely not for all audiences. It more than earns its R rating for pervasive, brutal violence and that in itself is a big turn-off to a lot of people. But if you go in with the right mindset, then "The Punisher" is heavy yet pretty entertaining. Lots of fighting, gunplay, explosions, and a hunk as the leading man - believe it or not, "The Punisher" isn't just for comic book fans.