by Philip Price
“The Gunman,” which takes Sean Penn and does the only thing Hollywood now knows to do with aging male actors by turning them into would-be action stars, has some rather interesting elements to it. There is a clear issue to be addressed here that a news reporter even states while looking directly into the camera at one point which is that of large corporations seeking control of the development of resources in poor and impoverished countries. Where our titular gunman comes into the fold is when America's corporate and government contractors hire mercenaries to knock off Third World socialists in order to protect their profits. The issue here is that the film presenting these issues is neither as compelling nor as important feeling as it would like us to think it is. As directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”) the film clearly knows it is a genre film, but even with this approach one would be hard pressed to find anything fun or interesting that it brings to the mix of this current crop of action flicks. As fun is clearly not the game this film wants to play one has to ask what unique or original element it brings to the table and in that regard there isn't much to discuss. Much like “Get the Gringo,” “The November Man” or even “After the Sunset,” “The Gunman” deals with the standard tale of an aged assassin somehow gone awry after his supposed last job who is looking for redemption as he comes to terms with mortality that also happens to feature exotic locations. Morel can always be counted on for highly-stylized and rather beautifully rendered action sequences especially considering his backdrops, but unfortunately here they end up being more riveting that the story or the characters they serve. As mentioned near the top, there are certainly some interesting elements at play including the overall mission statement of the film as well as the largely metaphorical, but extremely literal medical condition that Penn's character suffers from. It also cannot be argued that “The Gunman” features an impressive cast with a great mix of acting styles that fuse for some interesting moments, but there still remains a hollowness to the production that is inescapable and ultimately renders the film as unaffecting.
Beginning in 2006 we are introduced to Jim Terrier (Penn), a former sniper now working as part of a mercenary assassination team. Again, as I said earlier, the clients are all unknown, but the team members, including long-time friend and comrade Cox (Mark Rylance), are trusted. Terrier then moves forward with the mission of taking out the minister of mines in the Congo. There has been some political upheavel around the minister that has clearly cut into the clients pocketbooks and therefore they can't have him stomping on their lifestyle. As overseen by Felix (Javier Bardem) who makes it way too obvious early on that he's into Jim's girl, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), Terrier is set-up in a room to execute the perfect kill shot that, if successful, will force him off continent and into hiding to protect himself and his team members from any retribution. Through all of this Annie has no idea what the guys in her love triangle are up to, but the moment Terrier asks Felix to take care of her for him we can guess why things are going the way they are, not to mention where they'll likely end up. The assassination provokes wide spread chaos and death in an already tumultuous environment leading to Terrier returning to the Congo eight years later in hopes of somehow atoning for his sins. This return eventually catches up to him, placing him as the target of a hit squad undoubtedly connected to the minister’s assassination. Forced to go on the run while trying to discover who's out to get him Terrier enlists the help of old friend Stanley (Ray Winstone) and begins reconnecting with Cox, Felix and of course, Annie, in order to help him put the pieces together. There is also the involvement of the mysterious DuPont (Idris Elba) who may or may not be Terrier's ally as well as the ever-deteriorating physical brain damage that plagues the twisted game he somehow got caught up in again after trying to forget it for so many years.
What is most interesting to me about films like “The Gunman” is not necessarily the content that makes up the actual film, but more the reasons actors pick certain projects at certain stages of their lives. Surely, as hinted at earlier, there is something to the fact Penn decided to make a seeming action flick with the director of Taken after four years of only taking bit supporting parts, but was it the drive to be relevant, was it the drive to say something close to his heart in a popular manner or was it simply because he missed the idea of making movies and saw the opportunity this current trend in Hollywood afforded him? It is, of course, likely a mixture of each and no doubt other factors we aren't privy to, but for an actor who has largely made heady, rather dour projects since his breakout comedic role in 1982 it is at least an interesting choice he would swing towards a trend rather than remaining on his own path. Of course, we aren't here to dissect the career choices of our leading man in “The Gunman,” but more to focus on what he brings to that film and the fact there seems to be a deeper passion connected to this film that is more than just attempting to imitate the likes of Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Pierce Brosnan, Keanu Reeves or even Guy Pearce. As both a producer and integral part of adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel for the big screen Penn allows his dedication to the work his character is doing in building wells in the Congo and understanding that he is the bad guy in the scenario to infiltrate his solid performance. For, if there is a certain engaging aspect to the film besides its quality action aesthetic it is the caliber of performers at play here. Penn, who will turn fifty-five this fall, is as grizzled as ever and in lean muscular mode as he surfs the waves that line the Democratic Republic of the Congo with ease. His face, which has always seemed as if it were made of a thick, quality leather is worn as there is little left in his character. Penn plays it accordingly and yet it was hard to not constantly ask why I should care about this guy.
This brings us around to one of the major flaws of the film in that most of the time, audiences root for whoever the director decides to put the camera on, but in “The Gunman” we realize pretty easily how much of a bad guy Terrier is. Sure, he goes on to try and redeem himself, but ultimately he is getting what was coming to him for getting in on the kind of business he dealt with in the first place. The downside to this, despite the fact that we can't really harvest any sympathy for the character, is that supporting characters that we do actually like are turned into little more than leverage and used to teach our protagonist a lesson. While this is true of Winstone's Stanley it is more evident through the portrayal of Annie. As Annie, Trinca has little more to do than wait around to be rescued by Terrier as she is constantly in the cross hairs of those looking to kill her man. While I understand that this is a film about Terrier and not Annie, the story deals in a life-changing event not only for the male lead, but his female supporter and instead of dealing with the ramifications of this while still showing how she dealt with it Annie's life is reduced to being little more than a plot device to further Terrier's story. If we were to care for our intended hero more the story might have given us more humanity in his efforts to try to right the wrongs he knew he'd made not only in his life, but in the woman he supposedly loves as well. The argument would be there is hardly time for such development with everything else that is going on between Bardem's slightly sick and twisted Felix that the actor is more than down to flaunt, but the rebuttal no one wants to hear would be to cut much of the extraneous action sequences and focus more on the character dynamics to make a more interesting film. That said, Morel does include some rather brutal action scenes that are truly intense and one scene in particular where Terrier unhooks and reconnects an explosive device in order to dupe his trackers is a perfect example of the directors skill for using quiet imagery to display an exciting moment while developing an intriguing character quality. It is a shame the movie doesn't have more of this type of storytelling.