It’s kind of surprising to me that director Pierre Morel hasn’t worked more consistently since shepherding the out of nowhere hit Taken to the big screen and launching veteran actor Liam Neeson as a newfound action hero. He didn’t helm either of the sequels Neeson trucked on with, and since then has actually only made the odd action flick From Paris with Love. Well, Morel is back now, hoping to give Sean Penn the Neeson treatment with The Gunman. Sadly though, despite Penn helping to co-write the adaptation, this doesn’t come near the middlebrow quality of Taken. This is often a bore, extremely unoriginal, and mediocre to the core. Despite a cast that includes Penn and Javier Bardem, everything about this is derivative and reminiscent of trash cinema as opposed to a more meditative action outing. In some ways, this is just a Mad Libs type mix of elements from Taken and a number of both Neeson and Luc Besson’s movies. None of this bodes well for the film, leading to The Gunman feeling like something we’ve seen a number of times before. Humorless but never laughably bad, it just becomes a chore to sit through. I didn’t hate The Gunman, but I was very disappointed by the lack of anything for Penn to really do besides go shirtless and shoot guns. Alas.
The story begins by setting up the events a half decade prior that lead our protagonist Jim Terrier (Penn) to become a shell of himself. Stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a security contractor, Jim has a loving girlfriend in Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a team he’s friendly with, and a good life. Sure, Felix (Bardem) does seem to have eyes for Annie, but he isn’t concerned. Then, we learn that Jim is also a mercenary selected by Felix to be the sniper in an assassination of a government official. Completion of the mission requires that Jim leave the country immediately to go into hiding, which he regretfully does. Fast forward and events of course lead Jim to come back into contact with not only Annie and Felix, but his former cohort Cox (Mark Rylance). Soon, a hit squad is after him and he’s in a desperate fight for survival. If you’ve seen any of the middle age leading men action films of the past decade or so, you know where this is going to go. There’s an occasional solid moment of action, but it’s few and far between here with The Gunman.
The acting won’t be the selling point for this one. Sean Penn is one of the best actors in the business, but here he’s given absolutely nothing to do. Sure, he’s gotten pretty ripped and he’s incredibly earnest here, but he displays almost no personality. We’ve seen him blow us away in multiple genres before, but action might not be his cup of tea. He’s not bad, but he’s underserved by this film. Believe it or not though, he fares the best, as the supporting cast is under utilized at best. Javier Bardem’s character is ridiculous, with the performance being wildly uneven. The same could be said for Mark Rylance, while Jasmine Trinca mostly just screams and waits for Penn to protect her. Ray Winstone pops up playing a mysterious character like he has a number of times before, only to lesser effect than usual here, while Idris Elba essentially cameos and is wasted. Yes, the movie went to the trouble of casting Elba and then gives him two scenes, both of which only involve him chatting with Penn. Also in the cast we have Peter Franzén and others, but no one here leaves a mark at all.
In no way is Pierre Morel a top notch director, but he usually has a more deft touch than he displays here. To some degree, the script by Don MacPherson and Pete Travis (along with Penn as well) leaves Morel with a distinct lack of originality, but Taken was hardly original either and he still made it work. The Gunman doesn’t (aside from a slightly satisfying climax), which is a bit surprising considering it’s based on a purportedly well regarded book. Frankly, I’m not sure why Penn decided that this was a project to really get behind. He stars, co-writes, helps produce, and still leaves this basically as anonymous work.
Action junkies could potentially get a small kick out of The Gunman, but unless you’re a huge fan of Penn and a sucker for anything with gunfire, you’ll likely recognize the many flaws here too. I completely see why this is being more or less dumped in the middle of March. It thinks it’s a more clever film than it is, hurting it when it comes to just being dumb violence. The film is just plain bland. I don’t see any reason to seek out The Gunman whatsoever.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!