In Pierre Morel’s “The Gunman,” veteran actor Sean Penn gets to channel his inner aging action hero in the vein of Liam Neeson, who starred in Morel’s earlier film “Taken,” among others. Here Penn plays Jim Terrier, an expert sniper who works at a private security firm protecting humanitarian aid efforts in The Democratic Republic of Congo. While doing this, he’s assigned to assassinate the Mining Minister, a job that will come to haunt him in the future. Seven years later, after unnamed assassins attempt to kill him, Jim must figure out who’s hunting him.
Penn is competent in the role. He can certainly kick ass and clearly has been working out. A few scenes feature a shirtless Sean, displaying his bulging muscles. And Jimmy’s a resourceful fella, I’ll give him that. We’re never in doubt of his ability to gain the upper hand in a situation. Unfortunately, Penn doesn’t have much charisma or the soothing gravelly voice Liam Neeson has. Add to this the fact that the character of Jim is one-dimensional—reminiscent of countless other “expert action heroes”-- and you’ve got an underwhelming action protagonist trying to drive a cliché, derivative action picture. Most of the time in these kinds of pictures, if the star has personality or some style he or she can elevate the material. If your movie doesn’t even have that, well, you’re in trouble.
The action sequences are shot in typical Bourne-style shaky cam, a fad that’s, at this point, stale and kind of annoying to watch. In a fight scene I like to see the fist, or leg (or melee weapon) make contact with the body. Yet, to Morel’s credit, the action beats are well spaced throughout the film. There was never a moment I felt overwhelmed by any of the action set pieces. At the same time, the non-action sequences aren’t very compelling either. The plot is standard issue “cover up” fare and most of the story events and big revelations are obvious twenty minutes before they appear. During some moments I got antsy waiting for the characters to figure out a revelation I had already figured out a scene ago.
The only mildly interesting aspect of the movie is the underlying theme of business corrupting philanthropy. As the set up above suggests, the very same security company hired to provide protection to aid workers could also be hired by a private company to do bad things, bad things that can throw an already unstable country into even more chaos. However this is only lightly explored--Morel instead choosing to focus on the more generic aspects of the movie—so it feels tacked on, creating tonal confusion.
Even worse, for a movie this derivative, “The Gunman” takes itself awfully damn seriously, opting to be stiff and rigid, as opposed to embracing its silly, pulpy material. Penn is the worst offender, running around the streets of Barcelona and London—gun in hand—like he’s Daniel Day Lewis. Only the supporting cast--containing the likes of Javier Bardem as an old friend and Mark Rylance as the former head of the security company Jim worked for--manage to have some fun, their performances verging on loopy at times. A scene towards the beginning featuring an intoxicated Bardem is probably the most memorable moment in the movie. Sadly, even their contributions aren’t enough to save the picture. So, “The Gunman” dully moves along from one plot point to another.
Otherwise, there’s not much else to report. There are some gunfights, a love interest, a finale at a bull-fighting ring and Jim has some sort of post-concussion brain condition. Another aspect of the story that’s tacked on, serving no real substantial purpose in the end. On the whole “The Gunman” isn’t terrible, it’s just not very good. Dull to watch most of the time and does nothing to stand out. And Penn makes for a rather unremarkable action hero.