By Ty Burr
Updated April 26, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Based on a Marvel Comics character, The Punisher concerns a clench-jawed cop (Dolph Lundgren) who survives a mob hit and goes underground to become a one-man anti-Mafia vigilante squad. When the movie opens, he’s already had such success that the ensuing power vacuum is filled by two new villains: a smarmy European thug (Jeroen Krabbe) and Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), a sort of Catwoman for Japan-bashers. Onetime Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman) plays the Punisher’s ex-partner, and Barry Otto (Howling III) tenders witless comic relief as a drunken Shakespearean ham who speaks only in rhyme. Worse than all this, the action sequences look unduly tacky, especially a climactic brouhaha that takes place under red lighting and turns into a glowing blur on home video.

As for Dolph, he remains the most enigmatic of the current batch of muscle boys. Big as an old Buick, he has been not only a championship kick-boxer but also a Fulbright scholar at M.I.T. Yet his movies still haven’t found a good way to take advantage of his fighting chops or his smarts: They just prop him up like a big, scowling hunk of untapped potential. D+