Ever since Liam Neeson hit paydirt in 2009 with Pierre Morel’s Taken, every aging male star in Hollywood—from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sylvester Stallone to Denzel Washington to Bruce Willis, has tried to cash in on the badass daddy action hero racket. But so far, none of them have succeeded. This time last year, it was Kevin Costner doing his best to replicate the Neeson formula in the atrocious 3 Days to Kill. This year, it’s Sean Penn in The Gunman.
In his first leading role in four years, the two-time Oscar-winner plays Jim Terrier, a non-nonsense mercenary hired by Felix (a lively scene-stealing Javier Bardem), an associate for an international mining corporation, to assassinate a minister in the Republic of Congo. Upon completing his mission, Jim’s directive is to immediately leave the continent. This means leaving without saying goodbye to his long-time girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca, wasted).
Eight years later, on a trip back in the Congo, where he now works with an NGO, Jim becomes the target of an assassination attempt. Thanks to his survival skills, he’s able to survive the attack unhurt. A little digging leads to a shocking revelation that two of the four men part of the Congo mission eight years ago have died under mysterious circumstances, leaving him and Felix as the only survivors of the operation. After a quick stop in London to meet up with some old friends (Mark Rylance, the incomparable Ray Winstone), Jim decides to get answers from Felix in Barcelona. But visiting Felix leads to some unexpected surprises.
In contrast to some of his contemporaries like Tom Hanks and Colin Firth, Penn has specialized in playing violent characters with dodgy histories so transitioning to a full-on action hero with a checkered past was never going to be a stretch. Nevertheless, true to his reputation of fully-committing to roles, Penn bulked up his physique significantly to convincingly portray a former special-ops assassin. A scene in which he runs shirtless on a beach after surfing is quite possibly the film’s most shocking sequence. Additionally, with his tattoos, bulging biceps and slicked-back hair, he resembles an older, roided-out Jimmy Markum, his dangerous gangster character from Mystic River.
While his body may make a man half his age envious, Penn wears all his character’s emotional mileage on his creased face. Throughout the film, the actor brandishes an expression of a man who has just gulped downed a cocktail of dirt, brine, blood and petroleum. His Terrier is a haunted individual, deeply remorseful for the pain he inflicted, and someone who realizes that his days are numbered.
Unfortunately for Penn, it’s all worth for naught as nothing else about The Gunman is up-to-snuff. The screenplay, which is credited to Don MacPherson, Peter Travis as well as Penn (and based on a novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette), is derivative hokum—the type of by-the-numbers airport thriller that was likely dreamt up in one afternoon without much thought or wit. These qualities aren’t detriments on their own as there are many films that have succeeded in spite of these issues. However, the rambling nature of the script, its awkward pacing, and a bizarre subplot that has Jim suffering brain-numbing concussions at the worst possible moments flatten it.
Despite these deep-seated problems, Morel, who many credit with resurrecting Liam Neeson’s career (when it should be the other way around, considering how mediocre of a film Taken truly is), keeps the action sequences moving. His flair with shooting gun battles, and especially the gritty hand-to-hand combat sequences, keep the film watchable, even if they are cheap imitations of the Bourne franchise. The climax, set in a bullring, is noteworthy (and unintentionally comic) for how it keeps increasing the stakes by throwing one ailment or another at Penn. And a sequence when Penn counter-booby traps an apartment is a nice reminder that there were once intelligent people involved in the making of this movie. As far as the aging action hero genre goes, there are far worse options than The Gunman. Sean Penn’s presence alone elevates it. I only wish he were able to elevate it enough to salvage it.
Director: Pierre Morel
Screenwriter: Don MacPherson, Sean Penn, Peter Travis
Cast: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance
Producer: Sean Penn, Andrew Rona, Joel Silver
Running time: 115 minutes
Companies: Open Road Films
Rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexuality