Thomas Jane doesn't want to break the law. ''Are we allowed to smoke in here?'' he asks, striding into a midtown Manhattan hotel room. Told that it's kosher, the actor, who stars as a gun-happy vigilante in ''The Punisher'' (opens April 16), drafts a trashcan into ashtray service and lights up. ''I'm a big smoker,'' confesses Jane, shrugging broad shoulders. ''I tried to cut back for the movie -- it didn't work out. The crew has images of me running on the treadmill with a cigarette in my mouth. They got a kick out of it.''
Jane, 35, has always wanted to play gritty antiheroes, but he's spent much of his career doing anything but -- that was him wooing Cameron Diaz in ''The Sweetest Thing'' (2002), and playing Mickey Mantle in HBO's much-lauded ''61*'' (2001). So what took him so long? ''It's not me -- it's the industry,'' he says, making intense eye contact with the coffee table at his feet. ''It's getting the opportunity. It's finding the f---ing part where you're gonna be able to do something like that. Most of it's s---, and the good stuff goes to people who are very well-established.'' But Marvel execs, who had pursued Jane for other superhero parts that he turned down (he won't say which), handpicked him for the $33 million-budgeted ''Punisher,'' sticking bigger names in supporting roles (John Travolta as the villain, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Jane's would-be love interest).