A downer of a movie that sleepwalks through action-thriller tropes and takes itself too seriously.
Invincible action stars are out of fashion. In the ’80s and ’90s we paid bookoo bucks to watch beefcakes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme buzzsaw through bad guys by the thousands. Today, we’ve got Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, and even Helen Mirren (all sexagenarians) playing highly-skilled death dealers, raking in the action blockbuster bucks formerly reserved for men with glistening, 24-inch biceps (the old muscle-heads are clinging on for dear life, but their flame has dwindled considerably). French director Pierre Morel more or less started the “aging action star” trend with Taken, and now he’s giving Sean Penn the “Neeson” treatment with The Gunman, an international action thriller that unfortunately won’t be Penn’s springboard into genre superstardom because frankly, the movie’s sort of a bummer.
A lot of the film’s mopey vibe comes from Penn’s face. You know that first ten minutes after you wake up from a nap when you’re a groggy, unresponsive asshole? That’s what Penn’s like for most of the movie. He looks really, really miserable all the time, and it rubs off on you. His character, Jim Terrier, is at his happiest at the movie’s outset: It’s 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Jim, an American private security guard, has got a smokin’ hot girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a humanitarian aid worker whose group Jim and his team protects. They’re supposed to share a deep love connection, but they come off more like intense shag-buddies.
What Annie doesn’t know is, Jim’s real job is as a sniper for a mercenary group, led by their friend, Felix (Javier Bardem), who’s got a less-than-secret crush on Annie. Conveniently, a secret mission involving Jim assassinating a government mining minister provides Felix the perfect opportunity to steal Annie away: after the hit Jim is ordered to leave the country without so much as a goodbye to dear Annie, who’s left to save lives in the middle of the Congolese civil war without her man.
Skip forward eight years and Jim’s back in the DRC, digging wells to help provide water for the locals, and surfing on his downtime. An odd scene sees a shirtless Penn hit the waves for a while and run up the beach when he realizes he’s late for work. It’s odd because it plays like documentary footage of Penn vacationing in Africa, and is a laughably blatant excuse to show off the gym-rat pecs and abs he worked so hard on for the movie. Anyway, a group of men with guns show up to one of Jim’s dig sites screaming, “Where’s the white man?!”, a deadly run-in that sends him on a quest across Europe to hunt down his demons and atone for his sins. When he finds Felix married to Annie in Barcelona, things get personal.
From here, it’s old-guy action-thriller 101. There are double-crosses, verbal dick-measuring contests with Felix and an assortment of other tough guys, neck-snapping, choking, hiding, shooting, reunion sex…everything you expect, nothing more, nothing less. There’s a wrinkle in the plot involving Jim developing a harmful protein growth in his head due to the hard knocks he took during his time as a contract killer, but the only consequence of this contrivance is that Jim occasionally looks super constipated and then passes out at the worst possible moments (i.e. when baddies are around).
Though every step of the way the movie feels telegraphed and unsurprising, the good thing is Morel knows how to shoot and stage action scenes very, very well. The fights feel weighty and un-rushed, and some sequences are pretty inventive, like when Jim and Annie are trapped in a villa bathroom with all entrances blocked by grunts and Jim starts a fire to make good his escape. It’s always better to see Morel’s characters MacGuyver their way out of situations rather than Rambo their way out, and thankfully we get a few instances of the former to break up what otherwise is a movie that sleepwalks through genre tropes Morel helped establish with Taken.
Speaking of Taken, what made that movie work was that there was a sense of fun and adventure and locomotion to it, three things Gunman sorely lacks. Even when things are exploding or Penn is roughing up bad guys who deserve their comeuppance, the movie just never feels all that exciting. The film’s overriding tone is one of sadness and regret, and the plot revolves around characters who, across the board, are pretty big jerk-holes. There’s no ending to Jim’s story that would feel satisfactory because it’s hard to feel compassion for a guy who curses his old days as a killer one minute, and the next proceeds to mass murder dozens of men with finesse, precision, and flair.
Trinca’s character doesn’t sweeten the pot either. She’s written as a narrow-minded, sassy prize for Jim and Felix to fight over, which is a shame, because Trinca’s a hell of an actress. The rest of the cast are excellent as well and are often the only thing keeping the film afloat. Though Jim Terrier is far from a great role, Penn’s still a captivating screen presence. Mark Rylance, Idris Elba, and Ray Winstone have a few scenes each and have some fun, with Rylance (a decorated British stage actor) being the most memorable of all, modifying his voice with a gravely croak to hint at his character’s violent backstory.
Bardem has a lot of fun as Felix, playing him like a drunk, semi-incompetent Bond villain. He and Penn share some good exchanges, but it isn’t enough to save the film from its misery. The Gunman takes itself way too seriously. Maybe Penn—who received producer and screenplay credit for the film—let too much of his method-actor intensity seep into the film. Morel’s got style and class, and it’d be nice to see him out of his comfort zone with his next project.