Frank Castle, who has been the Punisher for five years, assaults a party for mob boss Gaitano Cesare, and kills him and the guests. Billy "The Beaut" Russotti escapes to his recycling plant hideout, and Detectives Martin Soap and Saffiotti, who were staking out the party, inform Castle. Castle infiltrates Russoti's hideout, and after a brief firefight, Russoti is thrown into a glass-crushing machine that leaves him hideously disfigured. Russoti later refers to himself as "Jigsaw" because the stitches in his face resemble puzzle pieces. Castle, who takes cover behind the body of Nicky Donatelli, discovers that Donatelli was actually an undercover agent.
Agent Paul Budiansky, the deceased agent's partner, joins the NYPD's "Punisher Task Force", partnering with Soap to help bring Castle to justice. Meanwhile, Jigsaw frees his deranged and cannibalistic brother, "Loony Bin Jim".
Distraught over killing the agent, Castle attempts to make reparations to Donatelli's wife, Angela, and daughter, Grace, to no avail. Castle threatens to retire from the vigilante business, but his armorer, Microchip, forces him to reconsider, telling him Jigsaw will go after Donatelli's family for revenge.
Jigsaw, Loony Bin Jim, and two goons, Ink and Pittsy, break into Donatelli's house and hold the family hostage. The Punisher tracks down Maginty, a known associate of Jigsaw, executing him after extracting the information before being apprehended by Budiansky and Soap. Castle tells him Jigsaw went after Donatelli's family, and Budiansky sends a police car to check on the Donatelli house, intending to turn the Punisher in. When the patrol car fails to respond, Budiansky checks on the house, where he is captured by Ink and Pittsy. Soap frees the Punisher, who kills Ink and Pittsy before leading Donatelli's wife and daughter away. Budiansky then arrests Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim after a short gunfight.
Jigsaw and his brother bargain with the FBI for their release by giving up Cristu Bulat, who was smuggling in a biological weapon destined for Arab terrorists in Queens, New York. The brothers are granted immunity, plus the US$12 million Bulat was paying to use Jigsaw's port, and a file on Micro. They take Micro hostage, killing his mother in the process. They once again take the Donatellis hostage, after critically injuring Micro's associate Carlos, whom Castle had left to protect them. Castle later arrives at the hideout, and euthanizes Carlos. Jigsaw sets himself up in the Bradstreet Hotel, putting together a small army of gangsters who want to see the Punisher dead. Castle enlists the help of Budiansky, who informs Cristu's father, Tiberiu Bulat, where Jigsaw is located. Tiberiu's goons start a shootout in the hotel lobby, affording Castle a distraction.
Castle enters through a second-floor window, leading to a firefight with Jigsaw's hired guns. Afterward, Castle engages Loony Bin Jim in hand-to-hand combat; realizing he will probably not survive the brawl, Jim runs away. Castle chases him and confronts both him and Jigsaw, who are holding Micro and Grace Donatelli at gunpoint. Jigsaw gives Castle a choice: If Frank shoots Micro, Jigsaw will let the others go free. Micro bravely offers his life to save the girl, but Castle chooses to shoot Loony Bin Jim instead. As a result, Jigsaw kills Micro. Enraged by the loss of his partner, Castle attacks Jigsaw, eventually impaling him with a metal rod and throwing him onto a fire. As Jigsaw burns to death, Castle calmly tells him, "This is just the beginning." Outside, Angela forgives Castle, who bids farewell to Budiansky and the Donatelli family. As Castle and Soap leave together, Soap tries to convince Castle to give up his vigilante status after having "killed every criminal in town." Soap changes his mind when he is held up by a murderous mugger who quickly becomes another victim of the Punisher.
In February 2004, two months prior to The Punisher's theatrical debut, Lions Gate Entertainment announced the studio's intent to produce a sequel. Avi Arad, chairman and CEO of Marvel Studios, expressed his interest in developing the franchise, saying that the second film would "become the fifth Marvel property to become a sequel." In March, the director of the first film, Jonathan Hensleigh, said that he was interested in working with Thomas Jane again for The Punisher 2. In April, Jane said that the villain for The Punisher 2 would be Jigsaw. In November, Jane said that the studio was interested in making a sequel based on successful DVD sales of The Punisher and was developing the preliminary budget for the follow-up.
In March 2005, Marvel Studios announced a 2006 theatrical release date for The Punisher 2. In April, Lions Gate Entertainment's CEO, Jon Feltheimer, confirmed at LGF's 2005 fiscal third quarter analyst call that the studio had completed its deal to develop The Punisher 2. Prior to July, Arad revealed that the script was being rewritten and that the sequel would start filming within the year. By July, Jane had put on an additional 12 pounds of muscle, and was hoping for filming to start in late 2006.
In March 2006, The Punisher 2 was announced to be produced in Louisiana, being listed in the domestic charter under Louisiana's Secretary of State. In August, Marvel Entertainment revealed a new film slate that included The Punisher 2 on its partial list with production still to be determined. Thomas Jane said that the writer was halfway through a draft and that he believed filming would begin by February 2007. Jane confirmed that the villain Jigsaw, first announced in April 2004, would be in the film. Jane also said that director Jonathan Hensleigh would not be returning to direct the sequel. In addition, Lions Gate Entertainment, amidst the studios returning to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, announced that The Punisher 2 would begin filming within the year. In October, Jane said the script was due in a couple of weeks, and that it would be "darker, bloodier and more unfriendly than the first one." In December, the screenplay was being rewritten by screenwriter Stuart Beattie.
It was announced that Kurt Sutter, a writer for The Shield, was involved with the script for The Punisher 2. Sutter said that he had an enjoyable time writing the script for the sequel and that it was going to be very true to the character. In a separate interview, Thomas Jane revealed that a new script had been turned in and everyone was hoping it would work out, as the lack of a good script had been holding up production. He further stated that if everything goes as planned then filming should begin in June or July, but shortly afterward, in a letter to Ain't It Cool News, Jane wrote that he had pulled out of the movie, stating:
"What I won't do is spend months of my life sweating over a movie that I just don't believe in. I've always loved the Marvel guys, and wish them well. Meanwhile, I'll continue to search for a film that one day might stand with all those films that the fans have asked me to watch."
In May 2007, director John Dahl was in talks to direct, but declined, citing a bad script and lack of budget as reasons for passing. In June, it was announced that Lexi Alexander would then take over the role as director as a result. In a December 2008 interview, Alexander revealed that when she first got the Punisher 2 script she passed on the project, but later changed her mind after reading the MAX adult Punisher comics, and getting assurances from Lionsgate that she could give the project a new look and feel – and cast a new actor in the central role of the Punisher. Director Alexander pitched her vision of the film as a throwback to '80s era action films, stating, "I said can we do it like this, and they all said that’s exactly what we want to do."
On July 21, it was announced that actor Ray Stevenson would play the Punisher in the sequel to the 2004 film. Filming was slated to begin in October 2007 in Montreal. Prior to filming, Stevenson read every available issue of The Punisher MAX, underwent endurance, martial arts, and weapons training with former Force Recon Marines and film fight choreographer Pat Johnson. In August, a working title for the film, The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank, was announced. On August 28, Lionsgate announced that the new working name for The Punisher 2 would be Punisher: War Zone. In mid-September, the director announced cast members joining Stevenson with Dash Mihok as Detective Martin Soap, Colin Salmon as Agent Paul Budiansky, and Doug Hutchison as Loony Bin Jim. It was announced on September 25 via The Hollywood Reporter that Dominic West will star as the main antagonist, Jigsaw, and Wayne Knight will play the Punisher's armorer, Microchip. Paddy Considine was considered for the role of Jigsaw in the film, but the offer was retracted and given to West who had previously turned it down. Freddie Prinze Jr. also auditioned for the role, but was refused by Lionsgate Studios from accepting the part. Filming occurred from October 22 until December 14 in Montreal. Principal photography for Punisher: War Zone was completed on December 27.
On February 14, 2008, Sutter officially removed his name from credit arbitration, stating:
"I took my name off the movie for a few reasons. The obvious reason is because I didn't deserve credit. There was very little of my draft that stayed in the shooting script. The one big one they kept, was the set piece where we see how Russo becomes Jigsaw. It's pretty brutal. Glad they kept that."
While the film itself was a 'box office bomb', the soundtrack achieved considerable commercial success. It particularly hit the #23 slot on Billboard's 'Top Independent Albums' chart.
An original score to the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, whose primary focus in making the score was to "create a definitive musical identity for the Punisher. I knew I needed something dark, relentless and muscular, but I also couldn't forget Frank's humanity, his personal torment and deep sadness. So, I approached the job equally as a fan and as a composer." In order to make the character of Frank Castle seem less one dimensional, Wandmacher decided to include snare cadences and powerful, dynamic ostinatos and slowly rising string repetitions to mimic a relentless entity, like an approaching battalion.
The film was set for a September 12, 2008, release, but was pushed back three months to December 5, 2008. A teaser trailer was released on June 12, 2008. On July 25, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News wrote an article claiming that Lexi Alexander had been removed as the film's director. A second trailer was revealed to the public at the San Diego ComicCon on the same day. Alexander did not make an appearance at the convention, which caused speculation from the fans who attended the film's panel to question whether or not her name had been taken off the film. On August 15, website Latino Review reported that Lionsgate would be editing the film to receive a PG-13 rating. The director of photography, Steve Gainer, later claimed that the film will be "R" and that Alexander is still on board the project. On October 3, IGN confirmed that Alexander was not fired from the movie, based on an official statement they received from Lionsgate. In a December 2008 interview, Alexander confirmed that she had had serious battles with Lionsgate, but denied that she was ever officially off the film. "My name was never off, nor would I want it taken off, nor did I ever get a pink slip. The truth is that we had probably the same discussions that any other film has." Despite the much publicized discourse, Alexander says she is "extremely happy" with the final film:
"It came at a price, I would say, but I made the film I wanted on the screen. I think personally, in my opinion, it would have been very dangerous to put a compromise on the screen for my own career and for the promises I made to these actors who I talked into joining the film. I don't really care that it was an uphill battle; I'm glad with what's on the screen."
On its opening weekend, Punisher: War Zone grossed $4,271,451 in 2,508 theaters in the United States averaging $1,703 and ranking #8 at the box office. The film grossed $8,050,977 domestically, making Punisher: War Zone the lowest-grossing film based on a Marvel Comics property, below Elektra and Howard the Duck. It also grossed $2,049,059 internationally, bringing it to $10,100,036 worldwide, making it a box office bomb comparing to its $35 million budget.
Punisher: War Zone has a rating of 27% based on 101 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 4.3 out of 10. The consensus is: "War Zone recalls the excessively violent, dialogue-challenged actioners of the 1980s, and coincidentally feels two decades out of date." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 2 out of 4 stars, writing, "You used to be able to depend on a terrible film being poorly made. No longer. The Punisher: War Zone is one of the best-made bad movies I've seen." And that the film's only flaw is "that it's disgusting." Clark Collis writes that Ray Stevenson's "character could be called the Not-Much-of-a-Learning Curveinator." Frank Dasta of RobotBoombox.com gave the movie 0 out of 5 stars, stating, "May God have mercy on this film's soul. Punisher: Warzone is bland, uninspired, and it missed the point of the source material entirely. It's like these people have never even read a proper Punisher comic."
Felix Vasquez of Cinema Crazed, who loved the previous film version, gave Punisher: War Zone, wrote, "War Zone is a better film." Edward Porter of the UK The Sunday Times gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, writing, "Earning an 18 certificate with its violence, the film is kids’ stuff in all other respects: over-the-top shootouts, monstrous and barking-mad villains, a bumbling sidekick and so on. Highly enjoyable tosh." Victor Olliver of Teletext wrote, "This is as true to a Marvel comic tale as I've ever seen - gory, serious, intense, dark and utterly psychotic." Movie reporter Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that it is the "best Punisher movie by far. The action is satisfying and the dark story is close to the tone of its Marvel Comics source material."
Comedian Patton Oswalt has been a vocal supporter of the film since its release, calling it "THE BEST time I've had at the movies this year." In October 2011, Oswalt hosted a screening of the film in Los Angeles with director Lexi Alexander, and the two discussed the film in episode 20 of Paul Scheer's podcast How Did This Get Made?
Punisher: War Zone was released on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray on March 17, 2009. It was released on two different versions, a 2-disc special edition with a digital copy, and a standard version featuring both widescreen and fullscreen versions of the film. DVD sales for the film in North America (as of March 2010) was $10,454,076 in revenue from 576,151 units sold. In total, Punisher: War Zone has made $20,543,449 in box office and DVD sales, and while there are no figures yet for how much it made in DVD sales internationally, which could add to the overall figure, it is still significantly lower than the $115M amount 2004's Punisher movie made from box office and DVD sales.
In later years, director Alexander stressed how much the film's parent studio Lionsgate had more control over the film and has "regretted" making the film their way, stating, "Marvel was an equal partner, but unfortunately when there were creative decision conflicts, Marvel would let Lionsgate be the tie breaker. I always regretted that I made a Marvel movie this way, because 99% of their notes were much better than the studios and I was more in tune with them". Alexander also noted that she did not have final cut of the film.
As of 2011, the live action film rights have reverted to Marvel Studios. Frank Castle / The Punisher made his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in the second season of Daredevil, portrayed by actor Jon Bernthal, and is set to receive his own series.
A tie-in PS3 video game, which shares fonts and models from the film, was released on July 2, 2009, via the PlayStation Network.