When you’re an Oscar-winning movie star who headlines as few films as Sean Penn, it starts to feel like a minor event every time you bother to grace the screen. Sure, at this point Penn’s probably as well known for being an annoying public figure as he is an actor, but he can still act his pants off when he bothers to try. So it’s still a little exciting to see him on a poster again, and ‘The Gunman’ promised a taste of politics in between rare sightings of Penn blasting bad guys away with machine guns.
Maybe this would be a pleasant surprise worthy of the chain-smoker’s underused talents? Or maybe it’d just be a dull action movie with delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately for Penn and anyone who has the misfortune of shoving their eyeballs in front of ‘The Gunman’, this flick ended up fulfilling the latter prediction.
Things kick off in Africa with a little mild commentary on how big greedy American corporations exploit third world countries. Penn plays Jim Terrier, a man trying to do good in the Congo along with his do-gooder buddy Felix (Javier Bardem) and his do-gooder girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). One night, the assassin-for-hire is instructed to put down his shovel and shoot the Congo’s Minister of Mines in the face. He’s then forced into hiding (even from the love of his life, NOOO!) and emerges many years later when he’s suddenly targeted for assassination himself as revenge.
Jim doesn’t know what’s up, and power smoking cigarettes won’t provide him with answers, so he decides to check in on Felix. Turns out that Felix is super-duper evil. He arranged that hit to help evil American big business and to steal away Jim’s special lady friend. As such, Jim has to set out for revenge, reclaim love, and make things right within the exploitative world of colonialism. To help him on the quest, he’ll track down his hard-drinking, people-killing buddy Ray Winstone, plus Idris Elba as a kindly special agent type, because why not? The important thing is that there will be many gunfights and explosions.
Penn served as actor and producer on the project, which one can only assume he viewed as an opportunity to get all political and stuff while also making some cash with a bang-bang action flick. This movie emerged through a combination of both noble and greedy intentions, and unfortunately failed in both regards. The politics are a bit confused. Even though the movie wants to provide proof of all the cultural injustices of the world, it also has enough of a boneheaded sense of geopolitics that a trip to Spain is included purely to go to a bullfight. (No cultural stereotyping there, right?)
It’s all pretty meaningless, which would be fine were it actually a decent little action movie. Even the suggestion of subtext is special in this genre. Unfortunately, the action is pretty lifeless as well. The tone of the movie is so unrelentingly grim that there’s no room for goofy genre fun, and any attempt at realism is undermined by ridiculous sequences like an evil bad guy getting gored by a bull. Directing duties fell to Pierre Morel (‘Taken’), but the deft touch he showed for mixing brutality and cartoon insanity in that flick is absent here. Despite all the movie stars and exotic locales, the movie looks cheap and ugly with visually nonsensical handheld shoot-outs that prevent viewers from ever seeing or appreciating the expensive bang-bangs.
All that said, Penn’s presence earns this movie a cast far better than it deserves. Although he doesn’t have much of a character to play, Penn cuts an imposing presence. Despite being in his fifties and having a cigarette dangling out of his mouth at all times, Penn comes off as intense, threatening, pained, and badass in all the right ways. He’s a good action lead. Too bad he didn’t pick a decent movie to showcase those skills.
Javier Bardem matches Penn with an eccentric villainous presence far more compelling than anything in the script, while both Winstone and Elba steal scenes in nothing roles. Only Trinca delivers a fully cardboard performance amongst the major players, but to be fair that’s more a result of her thankless role as a prize for Penn and Bardem to fight over. She had nothing to work with.
With a cast that good, the movie obviously has a handful of enjoyable scenes involving big names playing badass, but unfortunately everything around them is so misconceived that their work goes to waste. ‘The Gunman’ is an action movie too dour to ever feel fun and a political thriller too stupid to feel insightful. It’s a movie destined to disappoint two different audiences in two different ways. The fact that it has a stacked cast only makes this dully pretentious B-movie that much more disappointing.