It’s easy to imagine Sean Penn watching Liam Neeson’s transformation from character actor to action hero with envious eyes. Penn, primarily known for intensely played socially conscious roles, has apparently been nursing a secret desire to run around in a filthy shirt blowing away faceless goons with a high-powered assault rifle (haven’t we all?). Now, with the director of Taken on board and an impressive supporting cast, The Gunman is Penn’s moment to prove that he’s got what it takes to “pull a Neeson.”
The actor plays Jim Terrier, an ex-special forces operative engaged in shady mercenary work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He exists in the boozy moral grey area of bodyguarding and security work, with the only bright spot in his life being a passionate romantic entanglement with sexy French aid worker Annie (Jasmine Trica). But in these tense circumstances tension is brewing. Annie is being sweatily eyed up by Felix (Javier Bardem), who contracts Terrier to carry out a high profile assassination. Terrier is then forced to flee the country, leaving behind political chaos and the lovely Annie, who falls into Felix’s waiting arms.
Seven years pass. Riddled with guilt for his role in the assassination, Terrier attempts to ease his conscience by digging wells in remote villages. But this life comes crashing down around his ears when he’s targeted for assassination by armed thugs. Realizing this is no random attack, he embarks on a border crossing action espionage mission that involves exposing a conspiratorial web in which enemies are friends and friends are enemies and nothing is certain.
Opening the film in the DRC and plunging us straight into a very real political/ethnic and social catastrophe is a bold move. Action movies are usually deeply escapist media, but Morel rubs our faces in a dose of reality with real-world footage of corpses lying in the street, crying orphans and twitchy AK47 wielding militias. For a moment, everything looks promising, and you’ll probably be thinking that Penn’s political inclinations, combined with Morel’s action sensibilities will result in an imperialist critique with gunfights and car chases.
That promising opening quickly sputters, however, and is conclusively extinguished precisely when we leave Africa. The rest of The Gunman, which hops from London to Barcelona and Gibraltar, is a by the numbers bog standard action movie with a painfully huge debt to the Bourne series. As minute after crummy minute ticks by, audience interest slowly drains from the movie like air from a punctured balloon, leaving behind a saggy, formless mass.
Though the film essentially delivers the goods in supplying loud bangs and bright flashes, it’s done with a palpable lack of imagination, content to do the bare minimum to get to the credits. Even now, barely a day after watching it, I struggle to think of a single notable action element from the movie that I haven’t seen done a lot better elsewhere. Boredom quickly sets in, and it’s not helped by the growing suspicion that you’re watching a big budget cinematic realization of Sean Penn’s mid-life crisis. Barely a scene or two goes by without Penn finding some excuse to take his top off.
We get it Sean, you look great for a 55 year old, but for god’s sake put a shirt on and stop narcissistically wiggling your pecs at us!
The elements that made Liam Neeson such an interestingly unlikely action hero in Taken are almost entirely absent here. There, Neeson’s insistence on playing the role ultra-straight combined with a quietly satirical script and admirably lean narrative added up to an enjoyable silly experience. Not so here; the tangled mess of a script leaves Penn (who’s trying very hard to salvage this) lost at sea.
For example, in place of character development Jim Terrier has a brain condition: if he gets a bump on the noggin or hears a loud bang he could die! This is, of course, one of those cliched cinematic medical issues that only pops up when narratively convenient. In practise, it means that whenever our hero is about to shoot the baddie (and thus end the plot) the camera wobbles, he falls to his knees and the villain gloats over him. This is screenwriting laziness and worse, it’s utterly transparent laziness.
Unimaginative action and a seriously ropey script are one thing, but surely even that could be salvaged by a supporting cast that boasts the combined talent of Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance. Well, Elba shows up about 10 minutes before the film ends for a couple of scenes and Winstone (quite understandably) phones in his underwritten stereotypical East End gangster geezer. Rylance and Bardem at least appear to be having fun hamming it up a bit, but they’re shackled by crappy dialogue that’s firmly on the bad side of cheesy.
There’s little to recommend in this bland, unimaginative and narratively inert film. It’s telling that in the packed cinema I viewed it in, the sole audible audience reaction was muffled giggles at the more obviously cheesy lines. The Gunman‘s sole unique selling point – Sean Penn playing action hero – turns out to be a damp squib. He simply isn’t believable as an intimidating ex-Special Forces soldier and the film’s dogged insistence that he is only grates the longer it drags on.
The Gunman is nothing more than Sean Penn's mid-life crisis vanity project, and it isn't worth the price of admission.