Bookended by news clips and stock footage of Western exploitation of the people and resources of the Congo, Pierre Morel’s new thriller The Gunman fakes out the audience from the get-go, claiming to have larger political aspirations. An element seemingly tailor-made for star Sean Penn (who also gets a shared screenwriting credit for helping adapt Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel The Prone Gunman), any socio-political themes are quickly squandered to make way for what the film really aspires to: serving as yet another action vehicle for an aging actor looking to cash in on a late career revitalization. Morel is, after all, the guy who helmed Taken, transforming respectable thespian Liam Neeson into an onscreen ass-kicking machine, and before that pretty much single-handedly made Jason Statham a bankable action star, so who better to take the lead here?
As yet another entry into the (admittedly very welcome) aging action hero renaissance we seem to be experiencing, The Gunman is a moderately engaging, serviceable espionage-style thriller. The action bounces around the globe, from one “exotic,” gorgeous locale to another, from the Congo, to Barcelona, to Gibraltar, and all the while Morel stages a handful of workmanlike action sequences. Though the conspiracy at the center of the film is weak and convoluted to the point of incoherence—why the villains do what they beyond a very basic level of evilness is never explained—but then again, you don’t really care.
Penn (now a hardy 54 years old) proves to be a suitable badass, carrying himself believably as a world-weary tough guy who has seen some shit in his days—as well as, seen during the many times he takes off his shirt, a guy who maintains a crazy balance of jacked and grizzled. He plays James Terrier, a former special forces mercenary-for-hire who provided private security for NGOs in the Congo—when he wasn’t taking side contracts to do some “bad things” as he says, like assassinate a Congolese leader trying to kick out foreign mining interests. Now retired from the life and actually working for an NGO, Terrier’s past catches up with him, and he has to dig through his previous life to unravel the mystery of who wants him dead.
As if you couldn’t tell by now, Morel and his three screenwriters lean hard on a number of tired, overused genre devices. Terrier’s health is failing; the cumulative effect of a lifetime of abuse and trauma leads to his mind slipping away, so he has to take detailed notes in order to remember important information, and has random “spells” or “episodes.” Also: There’s a bullfight as visual metaphor. And, of course, the real drama and conflict all falls to Terrier’s dynamic with a long lost love, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), the woman he once had to leave behind who shows up again as an object in danger to be used to compel him back into the fray. She also happens to be the film’s sole female character, though she’s little more than a plot point.
Beholden to its top billing, The Gunman totally wastes most of its fantastic supporting cast. Ray Winstone is Stanley, Terrier’s last real friend, able to milk more emotional engagement out of his thin character than Trinca can with her romantic narrative. Javier Bardem at least appears to be having fun as Terrier’s ex co-worker-turned-enemy, full of drunken swaggering bravado. Idris Elba joins us for maybe four scenes, one of which consists entirely of a single shot of him answering the phone. But he does have two credited stylists to tend to his very short hair, so here’s to helping the country’s unemployment statistics.
The Gunman wants to be something so much greater than what it actually is—what it wants to be, though, is anyone’s guess. Buttressed by a handful of tense, if standard spy-thriller, scenes—like when James and Annie must evade a team of assassins sent to take them out—staged for maximum, high-octane melodrama, and aided by more than one Hitchcockian visual flourish, The Gunman is both drastically overlong and not particularly interesting. Yet, as a solid entry in a subgenre that has taken up some unexpected ground at the box office, Morel’s latest could do worse than giving Sean Penn a reason to hit the gym every now and then.
Director: Pierre Morel
Writer: Sean Penn, Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Jean-Patrick Manchette (novel)
Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Jasmine Trinca
Release: March 20, 2015