The movie takes off from the hyper-violent Marvel comic series of the same name and a comic I have read since I was a kid and still pick up and read as often as I can. I will address some the changes made to turn this comic into a movie so excuse my comic book nerd rants here.. After his family, including his two children, are senselessly and brutally murdered by the Mob, Frank Castle launches himself into a one-man war on crime to avenge them. In the movie, The Punisher, in the midst of a five-year campaign of rising up from the sewers to kill 125 people and break the back of the mob, faces a new threat. Against his weakened foe enters the Yakuza, the Japanese organized-crime faction, playing to a bid to oust the Mafia for control. When the children of the remaining power-players within the mob are kidnapped by the upstart Japanese gangsters, The Punisher must take up arms with his old enemies to rescue them.
The changes from the comic book were numerous and jarring to a long-time fan of the series. Castle's background was changed from Marine Corps Vietnam veteran to police detective (presumably, it was cheaper to film and set up the conflict with his old partner still searching for him). Rather than living (relatively) high in various safe-houses and depots paid for with vigilante bounties and money seized from his victims, as does Marvel's Punisher, the movie version tools around in the sewer tunnels under the city. His sidekick and link with the aboveground world has been changed from Marvel's "Microchip", a super-genius computer hacker and weapons procurer, apparently to a former stage actor turned drunken bum. The change of villains from the mix of sundry drug-dealers and other upstart criminal entrepreneurs and old Marvel standbies, like The Kingpin, to a mix of Italian mobsters and Yakuza is another change. Lastly, Lundgren plays the Punisher as a brooding, sullen, half-dead avenger 5 years into his career, instead of the somewhat more energetic, aggressive, and "happy", for want of a better word, Punisher more than 20 years down the line. As a side note, the nordic Lundgren (even with dyed-black hair) isn't quite the same as the Brooklyn native whose birth name was Castiglione.
None of this is serious, it can simply be said to be an "interpretation" or "inspiration" on the part of the writers. Or just the various exigencies of having to tell a different kind of story in a different medium.
The movie itself is largely mindless violence and stereotypes. The criminals are super-powerful and totally above the law, making the Punisher necessary. In a strage way, this turns into a curious mix. We have somewhat retrograde stereotypes of crime (a very Italian mafia in natty suits, peddling heroin; criminals acting with no concern for legal ramifications, doing stupid things like kidnapping for ransom or killing cops, etc.) mixed with newer ideas (the introduction of the Yakuza, for example). It's sort of like The Professional's interpretation of the New York mob, but written more larger-than-life. The Punisher has gotten into the middle of a mob war, set up to set tension for the movie.
The gangsters themselves are a complex of strange stereotypes. For one, the Italian mob is incompetent, unsophisticated, and apparently always eating. Their leader, played in a strange twist by Jeroen Krabbe, is the only one with a brain. The Yakuza are portrayed as dangerous, ruthless and alien invaders who mean business. They all, it seems, are incredible, super-human ninjas who possess incredible martial arts skill, and they act in incredibly vicious and bold ways, performing child kidnappings, open assasinations, torture, etc. In short, we have a pair of competing stereotypes, largely ethnically based.
The backstory of his former partner, played by Louis Gossett Jr, is interesting, and personalizes the story more. Castle, as a cop, was Gossett's partner and is obssessed with finding his old comrade turned above the law. This adds to the story, setting up a second fold in things, but is poorly handled. A new female partner, who turns into an otherwise useless and totally wasted character, finds The Punisher's hideout in 30 minutes when the seasoned veteran couldn't do it in five years. Ultimately, any conflict gets left to the wayside, as Gossett's character proves to have little impact on the outcome. This whole aspect to the story had potential, but should've been done much better if, for example, the ex-partner was more like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, a relentless and capable detective always just one step behind his quarry.
The battle scenes are interesting and much different in style from the comic book. Marvel's Punisher, in his war on crime, was a man of big guns, big presence and big entrances. His means of fighting as one man against many was to use stealth, speed, surprise, firepower, intimidation. A typical comic Punisher move would be to sneak in first and get set, set off an explosive in an ambush and then dash in quick and waste as many bad guys as possible with the biggest guns available, evening the odds and shocking the rest into panic, and then usually getting away before the cops showed up. This Punisher is a little lower in scope (it was probably cheaper anyways). He's even sneakier and stealthier sometimes, but he tends towards using less firepower in a more cinematic type of way (no armed vehicles, rocket launchers or machineguns for this fellow), wading through, firing a weapon at full-auto, and not taking any sort of cover or moving in and out quick. Realism, if that's important, slips a bit as he also gets into hand-to-hand fights a lot more and uses throwing knives as much, if not more, than guns. In fact, for both the Punisher and the Yakuza, throwing knives or other thrown weapons seem to be preferred to guns. Whoever made this movie really liked throwing knives, and it's used as a metaphor. The incompetent cops and Mafia never use knives and the message is that they are too unsophisticated and clumsy for them and are no match for either the Yakuza or the Punisher, with their sneakiness and their hundreds of pieces of hand-launched steel.
Dolph Lundgren, as I said, does the Punisher in his own way. He's laconic, droll, half-dead seeming. Perfect for Dolph. He actually didn't do bad, as I'm sure this is what he was going for. He plays the Punisher as a walking dead man rather well. Even his eyes look dead, almost as though he were stoned. The shaving job, the penciled five o'clock shadow, was a neat touch, and was (deliberately or not) shaped just right to evoke the Punisher's skull motif that is noticably missing from his chest here. Gossett does... Gossett here. The "good man" trying to do right. He got the part of the cop who owes something to his former friend well enough. Jeroen Krabbe did well, as the embattled but visionary and very snaky mob boss. The lady who played the Yakuza boss did a good here, evoking sufficient menace and arrogance to nearly make one's skin crawl.
The movie is an interesting take on the Punisher theme. Execution could have been a bit better, but they got their money's worth I think. If you like action and are looking for an action-packed Death Wish homage, check it out. Just don't expect either the comic book or anything really challenging or new here.