The Gunman (2015)

03/22/2015  By  Joseph Wade     Comments Off

It would be easy to pigeonhole The Gunman as director Pierre Morel simply remaking his breakout hit Taken. In reality, this film has a little bit more on its mind. With a freakishly ripped Sean Penn in tow, it sets out to distinguish itself by placing its action against the backdrop of a genuine humanitarian crisis. This also proves to be the film’s downfall, as The Gunman’s oddly specific plot points wind up emphasizing how painfully generic the film surrounding them actually is.

Sean Penn plays contract killer Jim Terrier, who, in 2006, is hired to assassinate Congo’s Minister of Mining. After carrying out the job, Jim flees the country and goes into hiding, leaving behind his lover Annie (Jasmine Trinca), and his partner Felix (Javier Bardem). Eight years later, Jim has returned to Congo, digging wells with a humanitarian group. When an assassin tries to murder him, Jim retreats to London, where he sets out to discover who wants him dead and why. He contacts his old colleague, Stanley (Ray Winstone), who sends him to Barcelona to hunt down the man who wants to kill him.

Ray Winstone and Sean Penn in The Gunman

Physical proof that there are, indeed, other characters in this movie.

From here, The Gunman has something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, Pierre Morel is directing the kind of film that sits squarely in his wheelhouse. The action beats feel visceral and propulsive, keeping the tired plot lurching forward every time it threatens to collapse in on itself. Each pull of the trigger has a real weight to it, and from a purely visual standpoint, this is some of Morel’s best work.

On the other hand, Sean Penn (also credited as a co-writer/producer), feels like he’s trying to make a critical statement about this sort of film. Jim is wracked with guilt over the things he’s done, chief among them murdering a government official in charge of the precious mineral trade in a politically volatile nation. All he wants is to atone for that sin in peace (and do some unsanctioned surfing on the side). One imagines Penn lobbied hard for this to be the driving force of the film, but the moment his character leaves Congo, that entire situation vanishes from the plot. In fact, the first half of the film leads us to believe that the men hunting Jim down for his crimes are agents of Interpol. Considering how The Gunman starts, it’s hard not to think that maybe he should cut his losses and just surrender to the police.

At some point, I’m sure that was the plan. It makes sense. So many action films like this end with the hero killing everyone in a half-mile radius and walking away scot-free. Having Jim face the consequences of his actions lends the film a sense of reality absent from many films of this sort. Of course, it isn’t exactly thrilling for the final act to feature a protagonist sitting in an interrogation room, signing confessions and conferring with his lawyer. That’s why the third act introduces an actual Interpol agent (Idris Elba) who basically says he’s just here to watch from the sidelines as Jim squares off with his real adversary. The Gunman only commits to its sense of realism when it’s narratively convenient.

Sean Penn in The Gunman

Moments later, Liam Neeson’s Sean Penn mask melted right off.

Before jetting off to Barcelona, Jim sees a doctor about his chronic migraines and gets diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome. He might as well have said Jim is allergic to action sequences, though, because his condition only seems to flare up during gunfights. This is a convenient character tic that frequently knocks Jim out and allows the script to just give up on action scenes that don’t have endings. That way, they can jump straight to the next tense situation without having to think their way out of the present one. You see, it’s more realistic, because professional killers put themselves through all sorts of stressful situations that wreak havoc on the mind and body. Exploiting this for easy narrative cheats is a fun and easy way of bringing the action back down to earth.

All of these mixed messages and clashing ideologies result in an action thriller that’s technically competent in only the most academic sense. Most of the cast is wasted on thankless material, and Javier Bardem seems to be the only one having any fun with it. Sean Penn is in top form, no doubt, but he lends the role so much gravitas that he threatens to bring the whole film down with him. The Gunman was never meant to be a fun action romp, but with a tone this bleak, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to revisit these characters anytime soon.

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Tensely Directed Action
Sean Penn in Hero Mode
Genuine Political Stakes
Painfully Generic Plotting
A Waste of a Perfectly Good Idris Elba

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.