Could The Gunman possibly be the start of a new franchise and a new action hero?
With Liam Neeson announcing that he will make an exit from action movies in the coming years, that means there’s a spot for an actor of merit to have a mid-life crisis and refashion himself as an action star.
Say hello to Sean Penn.
For an actor who has won two Oscars, is a respected humanitarian, and is the joke to a punchline from Tropic Thunder, what better time than now to have the 54-year-old become an action hero? If it worked for Neeson thanks to the Pierre Morel-directed Taken, then the same should be true for Penn in The Gunman (a new action-thriller from Morel).
Not so fast, my friend.
As someone who once ordered a pizza to Mr. Hand’s history class in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and who, next to Daniel Day-Lewis, may be one of the finest actors of his generation, Sean Penn seems an unlikely candidate to go from being altruistic to stabbing someone in the throat.
But from the opening credits, it is apparent that The Gunman is a vanity project for the esteemed thespian. Not only does he headline the action-thriller, but he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the feature. This may explain why it has little in common with the French novel (The Prone Gunman) from which it is based.
Opening in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, Jim Terrier (Penn) is an NGO worker providing security while an airstrip is being constructed. It is during his time in the DRC that he falls in love with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a Doctors Without Borders volunteer nurse. But Jim isn’t the only heart she has attracted, as Javier Bardem’s Felix coyly hides his affections. His jealousy makes Jim the perfect fall guy for an assassination job – Jim also works for (along with Felix) a multinational mining company, which has its own interests that need protecting. Felix is the civil contractor for the foreign mining companies and Penn’s mercenary team. When the call comes to deliver the kill shot to the country’s mining minister, Jim takes the shot and then leaves the country and Annie.
Moving forward eight years, The Gunman finds Jim back in Africa drilling wells as part of UNICEF. When a few paid militants fail to kill him, Jim starts to connect the dots to the minister’s assassination that led to his hasty exit. So he goes looking for those responsible, beginning with the members of his kill team.
The remaining 90 minutes have Sean Penn globetrotting as he tracks down those who had knowledge of the murder. Along the way, he engages in fisticuffs and sequences that require him to appear shirtless. (Must be a clause in a contract to show his veiny biceps and chiseled physique).
The Gunman so much wants to be like the Jason Bourne movies in terms of action and John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, but it has no intrigue and lacks a compelling protagonist. The narrative also includes a love triangle, social activism, and the odd story device of having Penn’s character suffer from post-concussion syndrome, a brain injury that could kill him if strained. Once this admission is made, our hero does exactly what the doctor tells him not to do. The sad fact is that the device is forgotten and conveniently reintroduced at the worse possible times.
The Gunman’s most egregious error is having a strong supporting cast and giving them a poorly written screenplay. Javier Bardem’s character is not that far removed from the one he played in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. Ray Winstone is Stanley, an old friend of Jim’s. He tries to be logical concerning Jim’s brain condition. Sadly, his voice of reason falls on deaf ears. Then there’s Idris Elba, who gets sizable billing but is an insubstantial character overall.
If there is any highlight to be found in The Gunman it is with Pierre Morel’s direction. The guy just knows how to shoot action. He has proven it with District 13, Taken, and From Paris with Love. For his first film in five years, Morel still proves to be a solid action filmmaker. He makes Sean Penn’s punches and gunplay look fluid in scenes that get a little gory with gunshots and slashes to the jugular.
The Gunman is fine for those looking for an action-thriller that is competently directed measured against a wasted ensemble and an unconvincing Sean Penn as a grizzled ex-mercenary.
[Image via Post-Movie.net]