Rating: 6 out of 10
Sean Penn as Jim Terrier
Directed by Pierre Morel
After being involved in the assassination of an important Congo minister, ex-Special Forces soldier Jim Terrier (Penn) has to prevent his own assassination attempt, putting him on the trail of someone from his past who wants him dead to clean up loose ends.
Having won two Oscars for his dramatic acting while becoming a highly-respected activist and humanitarian, what more could Sean Penn want in his life and career than maybe to become an action star ala ‘90s Bruce Willis or Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne? Heck, if Liam Neeson can become an action star at 56, thanks to the Pierre Morel-directed Taken, then why can’t Penn do the same at 55 with his own action-thriller directed by Morel?
Maybe because Penn isn’t nearly as convincing as a special agent or any sort of military personnel, because it’s so disconcerting watching someone who’s earned a reputation helping and saving people doing such a 180 by beating people up or stabbing them in the throat.
But that’s not to say that The Gunman doesn’t have any sort of social-consciousness whatsoever. The film opens in the Republic of Congo in 2006 where Penn’s Jim Terrier is helping with the relief efforts there, particularly those of his lovely nurse girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Creeping around is Javier Bardem’s Felix, who clearly has his own interest in Annie, which makes it convenient for him to call upon Jim to help assassinate an important minister, forcing him into hiding while leaving Annie behind for Felix to swoop in to “take care of her.” Eight years later, Terrier’s returned to Congo, but after a number of militants try to kill him, he realizes the connection to the earlier assassination so he starts looking for those responsible, which brings him to London before reuniting with Annie and Felix in Barcelona.
Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 2002 “The Prone Gunman,” The Gunman knows that it wants to be a ‘90s-style action-thriller with a little bit of Jason Bourne thrown in, but then it also tries to shoehorn in a love triangle and some social activism, which makes for a rather schizophrenic experience. Apparently, Terrier is a Special Forces soldier, but that isn’t something you would know from anything you’re told in the movie, but just from the fact he has all sorts of special skills similar to the lead character in Morel’s earlier film. Credited as a co-writer, Penn seems like an odd choice for this role, although one would expect him to give the character more weight than any other number of action stars who might have been more obvious for the role.
The main reason the film works at all is that Morel’s a solid action director who makes a good-looking film while building the suspense and tension through the action sequences, although some of that comes from the confusion of not really knowing what’s going on in the first half hour. (Once we figure it out, we have to hear Penn explain to everyone he encounters exactly what we saw take place earlier in the film.)
The other odd decision is to have Terrier mysteriously suffer from some sort of brain injury that could cause him instant death if he continues to put strain on his head, and he spends the next hour doing exactly what the doctor told him not to before the filmmaker suddenly remembers and reintroduces that plot device.
Terrier has some help from former colleague Stan, played by Ray Winstone, but when he eventually reunites with Annie, she’s married Felix since Jim left her in the Congo. Bardem’s role is a relatively small one, but he gives a performance that’s all over the place, leading to a bunch of drunken overacting. Those seeing the movie for Idris Elba are likely to be disappointed by how little time he’s on screen as an Interpol agent, basically three short scenes in an insubstantial role.
The film earns its R rating with a number of gory action sequences that often make up for the problematic and confusing plot. You can tell the writers did spend time doing their research on the various weapons used, although honestly, they could have just as easily figured much of that out by playing “Call of Duty.” Once Terrier has settled his score, he’s back in the Congo to work as a peacekeeper… just in case there’s any question that it’s the socially-conscious Penn adding his two cents to the script every step of the way.
The Bottom Line:
The Gunman isn’t terrible–those who enjoy explosions, shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat should be fine with this perfectly fine action-thriller throwback–but considering the level of talent involved, one would and should expect better.