Frank Castle is the city's most wanted, and most mysterious vigilante, known as "The Punisher". He has killed 125 criminals in the past five years. An ex-police officer, Castle's family was murdered in a mob hit, in which Castle was also thought to have perished. This, combined with Castle's furtive methods of attack, has made the Punisher's identity a mystery to the general public.
Living in the sewers and waging a one-man war against organized crime, his only friend is an old alcoholic named Shake, a former stage actor who speaks in rhyme for reasons unexplained. Now legally declared dead, Castle strikes back from beyond the grave, killing mobsters wherever he can find them. Due to his war against them, the Mafia families have weakened, forcing one of the family leaders, Gianni Franco, to come out of retirement.
Franco has a plan to unify the families. This, however, has attracted the attention of the Yakuza, Asia's most powerful crime syndicate. Led by Lady Tanaka, the Yakuza decide to take over the Mafia families and all of their interests. In order to sway the mobsters to their cause, they kidnap their children and hold them for ransom.
Shake pleads with the Punisher to save the children, who are likely to be sold into the Arab slave trade regardless of whether or not the Mafia give into the demands. The Punisher attacks Yakuza businesses, warning that for every day the children are held in captivity, he will inflict heavy costs on them in property damage. The Yakuza later capture the Punisher and Shake and attempt to torture them into submission, but Punisher breaks free and decides the only course of action is a direct rescue.
He is able to save most of the children with a .45 Thompson M1928 submachine gun against the Yakuza guards and commandeers a bus to get the kidnapped children to safety. However prior to this Tommy Franco, the son of Gianni Franco, had been taken away to Yakuza headquarters. When driving the busload of kids, the Punisher runs into a police roadblock and is arrested. While in custody Castle is reunited with one of his old partners, who warns his multiple killings will likely get him executed, however at a later point Castle is broken out of jail by Franco's men. Franco admits he brought this on himself as the hit on Castle's family was an error, and persuades the Punisher to help him save his son. Castle ironically agrees to work with his old enemy for the sake of stopping the Japanese criminal underworld from taking root in America.
Franco and the Punisher raid the Yakuza headquarters, fight and kill all the Yakuza, including Lady Tanaka and her daughter. Upon being reunited with his son, Franco betrays the Punisher, overcome with delicia at being the sole Mafia boss, in order to prevent any usurpation of his position, but Castle defends himself and kills Franco. Franco's son then threatens the Punisher for killing his father, but cannot bring himself to hurt him. Castle warns Franco's son to "stay a good boy, and grow up to be a good man", not following his father's misdeeds. He also warns he will return should the boy commit any crimes, then disappears. The police arrive, only to find no trace of the Punisher. Meanwhile, at his lair, Castle lets the audience know that he will be waiting in the shadows, serving his own brand of justice.
Production took place in Sydney. The film was given a worldwide theatrical release, except in the United States, Sweden, and South Africa. The film was originally slated for a US release in August 1989, as trailers were created by New World promoting the film. The film premiered in Germany and France in October 1989 and it was shown months later at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Sci-fi Convention in July 1990. However, the film never received a wide theatrical release in the United States due to New World's financial difficulties and its new owners not having an interest in theatrical distribution. It was sold to Live Entertainment (now Lionsgate) who released it direct-to-video on VHS and Laserdisc in June 1991. It finally premiered at the 2008 Escapism Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina where director Mark Goldblatt screened his own personal 35mm print (which he showed again in April 2009 at the Dolph Lundgren Film Fest hosted by the New Beverly theater).
The film received mainly negative reviews. It currently holds a 28% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 18 reviews, with an average rating of 3.5 out of 10. The site's consensus states: "Despite the seemingly indestructible Dolph Lundgren with a crossbow, The Punisher is a boring one-man battle with never-ending action scenes." Christopher Null gave the film 1 out of 5, stating the film was "marred by cheeseball sets and special effects, lame fight sequences, and some of the worst acting ever to disgrace the screen." MTV.com cited it as an example of a failed comic book film, complaining that the film omitted aspects of the character that made him compelling, and would have served better following closer to the plot of the source material. Whilst criticizing the film's storyline and acting, Time Out magazine concluded the film was "destructive, reprehensible, and marvelous fun". TV Guide's movie guide gave the film three out of four stars, praising Lundgren's portrayal of the character and compared the characterization of the Punisher to that of Frank Miller's re-imagining of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. They further praised the film's atmosphere, calling it "genuinely comic book-like, rather than cartoonish".
A full orchestral score was composed and conducted by Dennis Dreith at the Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank, California. A CD of the soundtrack was not released until July 19, 2005 (Perseverance Records, PRD006). The CD includes the complete multi-track stereo recording, as well as a 22-minutes interview with the composer Dennis Dreith and the director Mark Goldblatt. Perseverance Records also released a new 5.1 mix as a SACD, in collaboration with Tarantula Records (TARAN001). The American DVD release only contains a monaural (single track) soundtrack, despite the film being mixed in Dolby Stereo. The 2013 German and UK Blu-ray/DVD editions were presented with 2.0 and 5.1 (Dolby Digital and DTS-HD MA) sound tracks although the UK disc was made from mono tracks.