Directed by Pierre Morel
Let's get this out of the way first. Sean Penn is ripped. I don't know if it was for this film or for his impending marriage to Charlize Theron, but the guy has gotten ripped. Hugh Jackman veiny ripped. A more proportionate Stallone ripped. Christian Bale as Batman ripped. Sean Penn is probably the most ripped, the most cut of all of Madonna's 54-year-old Oscar-winning ex-husbands. It's a bizarre image, Sean Penn, bulked up, running and shooting and running and fighting and running and chain smoking and running and surfing. And then running some more. It seems that his decades-long competition with Tom Cruise has entered the 'which middle-aged man looks cooler running on screen' stage.
Easily, the most impressive thing about The Gunman is Sean Penn's transformation from chain smoking middle-aged skinny surfer to chain smoking middle-aged creepy guy on the cover of Feel Bad You're Not As Fit As Me magazine. Jeff Spicoli is all grown up and has given up his bong for protein shakes and a personal trainer. I probably wouldn't be going on and on and on about this, but Penn does spend at least half the film shirtless and even has a ripped guy in a steamy shower scene. He obviously wants the world to see what he has done to his body. And, yep, it's impressive. Arms the size of goalie pads, shoulders twenty-six feet across, veins the size of snakes, and abs you could cut marble on. Too bad The Gunman isn't half as sharp as Penn's abs.
The Gunman is a confused, unfocused, poorly paced and politically shallow mess. The politics on display here are what I would expect to hear from first year political science students sitting in a campus bar during frosh week. And I agree with its politics. But bringing attention to the horrors that are perpetrated in the third world by multi-national corporations has to go beyond "corporate greed is bad, m'kay". And the physical toll of war on the brains of soldiers deserves more than Sean Penn grimacing and sweating and occasionally vomiting. He looks more like the guy who just blew his mortgage at a strip club than a soldier dealing with the damage of repeated concussive injuries.
This latest entry in the old guy action film genre is the story of Jim Terrier, protector of humanitarian relief efforts and N.G.O.'s by day, mercenary assassin when the sun goes down. Mysterious clients pay for the killing of the minister of mines of the Congo. Terrier's kill sends the country, barely held together by prayers and gum and duct tape, spiralling into anarchy and chaos. He flees the continent, leaving behind his girlfriend and his team. Eight years later, he is back in the Congo, digging wells and trying to find redemption when a hit team is sent after him. He travels across Europe trying to solve the mystery of who is gunning for him and why. The journey takes him to old team members turned corporate suits and the girlfriend he left behind, now married to one of the corporate suit wearing former team members. Interpol is watching and blah, blah, blah. Look, I know we go to a movie made by the people behind Taken for one reason only - to watch an old guy kick all kinds of ass in all kinds of ways. And that is where The Gunman delivers.
The action scenes are plentiful, as are the bad guys. The bad guys are shot and pummelled and blown up real good in picturesque Bond-like locations, from rural Congo to Spain. The gun battles are well choreographed and executed. The hand-to-hand fists and knives are also well choreographed and executed. They all follow the Bourne and Bond formulas, taking full advantage of the environment they're shot in. Sean Penn is serviceable as a no name-taking, ass kicking, middle aged one man death bringing war machine. The bad guy's cannon fodder are just bland enough to barely register as anything but targets that shoot back. There are issues in the editing, though. Moments where the location of the bad guys and our good guy gets confused and muddled. But, overall, the action works.
The supporting cast is a host of missed opportunity. Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, and Ray Winstone are given nearly nothing to work with. They all do great work, but that is what they do no matter the project. These actors will chew up scenery like they haven't eaten in a week and deliver memorable performances. But to cast Idris Elba for lighter flicking and a monologue about treehouse building seems like a bit of a waste. Jasmine Trinca has the most thankless job here, cast as the left behind girlfriend who needs to be rescued. But in 2015 aren't we well past the time when a character is introduced as a war zone doctor and then is reduced to a helpless damsel in distress?
The Gunman's most glaring issues find their roots in the script. Co-written by Penn, the script packs in action story beats, mixes in global humanitarian relief efforts, with a dash of a love triangle and a sprinkle of corporate greed is bad, m'kay. The movie seems like it was shot using a handful of ideas and a handful of unfinished scripts. Disjointed and confused, more than once it stops to fill in the audience on what is happening in the story. Exposition is launched at us with all the subtlety of glitter bombs.
The old guy action film genre really has become a thing in the last decade or so. With Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson leading the way of incredibly talented award-winning actors in their 50s and 60s picking up prop guns and playing out audiences' revenge fantasies, the old guy action film is a global success story. The solid box office performances of the Taken series and Denzel's The Equalizer and Keanu Reeve's John Wick have proven that there is an appetite for watching actors of a certain age kick ass. The idea that a 67 year old man could star in an action film should be the stuff of nightmares and jokes. And yet, this summer will see the release of Terminator Genisys, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I don't see The Gunman being a part of the old guy action film canon. The star comes with way too much baggage. The action scenes, while stuff does blow up real good and bad guys die in spectacular fashion, are dragged down by poor editing and a bad script. The film is serviceable, bullets fly and knives get swung and grenades go boom. But serviceable isn't really good enough. If I bothered to rate films, on a scale from, say, "this makes baby Jesus cry" to "this is why art exists", I'd have to give The Gunman a solid m'eh. It's not that it's a bad film, it's just barely an okay film.