Directed by: Pierre Morel
Written by: Don MacPherson & Pete Travis & Sean Penn based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Starring: Sean Penn (Terrier), Jasmine Trinca (Annie), Javier Bardem (Felix), Ray Winstone (Stanley), Mark Rylance (Cox), Idris Elba (Barnes), Peter Franzén (Reiniger), Billy Billingham (Reed), Daniel Adegboyega (Bryson), Ade Oyefeso (Eugene).
It’s easy to make fun of Liam Neesom – who became an unlikely action star around the time he turned 60. Over the past few years, he has made one silly action movie after another that utilize his “very specific skill set”. Most of them haven’t been very good – but there are a couple that have been. But as bad as these Neesom movies can get, they are all much better than The Gunman – in which Sean Penn tries to get in on the aging action star market that Neesom has pretty much cornered. Penn not only stars in The Gunman, he also produced and co-wrote it. He got Taken director Pierre Morrel to sign on to handle it. The film is as ridiculously plotted as anything Neesom does, but far worse for a very simple reason. It takes itself way too seriously. True, Neesom always appears serious, even in the most ridiculous of movies, but I think he’s in on the joke. Penn doesn’t seem to be.
Penn stars as Terrier – a mercenary living in the Congo, posing as a “security officer” and living with a doctor on a humanitarian effort, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). But Terrier and his team are called in to do a job – assassinate the new Mining Minister, who wants to crack down on foreign companies, which of course, would cost them money. Whoever takes the kill shot will have to leave the country immediately – and, of course, that ends up being Terrier. A few years go by, Terrier is still in love with Annie, but hasn’t seen her since he had to flee – and he is trying to make up for the sins of his past – returning to the Congo to be a humanitarian himself. But there are people after him there – who seem to know precisely who is he, and what he has done? Has someone talked? Terrier means to find out.
There are few movies I can think of that waste as talented of an ensemble cast as The Gunman does. Penn, of course, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen look so bored and indifferent in a movie before (which is odd considering his roles as producer and writer with the film as well). True, Penn has been horribly bad in movies before – but normally, that’s because he goes wildly over the top (like say Gangster Squad) – but at least he’s trying. There’s also Javier Bardem – who seems to be trying to deliver the same performance here he did in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor – but without the wicked dialogue – and ends up kind of embarrassing himself. At least Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance and Idris Elba don’t do that – they just pretty much don’t do anything at all.
The plot of the movie is by-the-numbers, sub-Bourne globe hopping action film. The use of Africa as backdrop is a little disappointing, since it’s clear the filmmakers don’t have any real intention of using it as anything more than just a backdrop – paying a little bit of lip service to the West exploiting the continent, and having an embarrassing scene where Penn tells his African assistant what a good person he is. From there, Terrier jumps to London and Barcelona and back to Africa again – although oddly everywhere looks the same as everywhere else. The finale – at a bullfight of all places – is one of the more ridiculous action set pieces in recent memory – but not ridiculous in an entertaining, “oh my god, did you just see that?”, kind of way, but rather in an eye roll, is this over yet, kind of way.
Director Pierre Morel seems to be on autopilot here. He’s certainly not the best director of action around – but in films like District B13, From Paris with Love and, yes, even Taken, he has at least shown some solid chops. Here, he doesn’t really do anything memorable – with dimly lit dramatic sequences, and poorly executed action ones. A film like this should, at the very least, never bore you – but this one almost put me to sleep.
Penn is a great actor – he has two Oscars after all, and deserves them – but in The Gunman he shows why he hasn’t done many of these types of action films before – he’s just not that good at them. Neesom is not as good as an actor as Sean Penn is – but he’s way better at this type of thing. Penn should leave these to him – and get back to doing what he does best.