The past few years has seen a resurgence of action films revolving around a past-his-prime yet-still-bad-ass dude setting things right. This was probably first set in motion by Sylvester Stallone and his grizzled action star filled “The Expendables” films, and has been handily retrofitted to varying degrees of success for actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger (“The Last Stand,” “Sabotage“), Liam Neeson (“Taken,” “Unknown,” “Run All Night,” “Non-Stop“) and Kevin Costner (“3 Days to Kill“). One of the more unlikely participants in this prune juice-fueled movement is Sean Penn via the “The Gunman.” It shares a lot with those other films —a graying, righteous loner making the hard decisions no one else can or will, an improbably high body count, a soundtrack that bleeps along like the inner workings of a computer, a beautiful woman caught in the middle— but is also saddled by Penn’s self-conscious altruism. The result is a dumb, loud action movie that aspires to forcibly entertain and provoke thought but fails miserably.
The beginning of “The Gunman” is hackneyed but intriguing. Penn plays a character named Jim Terrier who works for a private security firm that is as shadowy as it is anonymous. When called upon, he steps up to the plate and does some very bad things (like an elaborately staged and graphically violent assassination in Africa). Terrier is dating a young aid worker Annie (Jasmine Trinca) and is working for a jealousy-prone colleague named Felix (Javier Bardem). After the assassination, Terrier flees the country, leaving behind his girlfriend and his coworkers.
Several years later, Terrier is back in the same African country, this time as an aid worker attempting to bring clean drinking water to the region. He’s out helping to dig a well one day when some random goons try to kill him. Of course, Terrier falls back into his old ways, promptly murdering the thugs. This sets him down a mysterious path to figure out why he was targeted, who else is involved, and whether or not his former friends are next (or in on the plot themselves). It also means that he has to check in on his former flame, who just so happens to now be married to Felix. You can almost taste the intrigue.
“The Gunman” is based on a pulpy novel by French author Jean-Patrick Manchette and was directed by Pierre Morel, who helped Neeson become a graying action icon with the first “Taken” film. This seems like the perfect match of filmmaker and material, especially under the auspices of producer Joel Silver. But from the time the movie resets after the assassination sequence and attempts to settle into the groove of a headier, more austere movie, everything feels tugged in two opposing directions. One is a hardcore action movie best stumbled upon on cable late at night, featuring a sequence where Penn booby traps an apartment building in order to atomize some henchmen upon entering. In the other direction is a soft-spoken international drama, wherein Penn, complete with those soulful eyes and quivering upper lip, talks about the victims of war and dangers of privatized security firms.
And while all of that high-minded compassion is appreciated, especially in a movie with this many exploding heads, it doesn’t make for compelling drama. Morel is a competent enough filmmaker, staging action sequences with clarity and verve, but he’s less comfortable with human drama, and the interaction between Penn and Trinca in particular seems stiff and awkward, like another movie had been awkwardly grafted onto this one. Supporting characters played by fine actors like Mark Rylance, Idris Elba and Ray Winstone are so one-note that when they’re trying to be terribly mysterious, the lackluster script gives them away almost instantly.
If there’s one individual embodying the bizarre yet still crass schizophrenia of the film, it’s Penn, who not only gets to be soulful before murdering countless private contractors, but who also snags a co-writing credit alongside Don Macpherson and Pete Travis (director of the embattled cult hit “Dredd“). That particular detail is telling , as “The Gunman” reveals itself not to be a contemplative action thriller but a blood-splattered vanity project in which Penn recasts himself as savior and angel of vengeance using every excuse in the book (including some he undoubtedly invented himself) to take his shirt off. Someone should to clock this, but we’re pretty sure that he spends more of the movie without a shirt than wearing one. Penn finds the time to save the damsel in distress (who also happens to be a highly educated, sexy, compassionate woman) a half-dozen times and expose a multinational conspiracy. It’s enough that you half expect “The Gunman” to end like “Star Wars,” with Penn receiving a shiny gold medal from some galactic dignitary as a thank you for his heroism.
Instead, “The Gunman” ends in a way that is quite fitting: there’s a big set piece where multiple characters are brutally killed (including one who is, no joke, gored to death by a bull), immediately followed by a super syrupy conclusion that reinforces the inherent good that NGOs can do in war torn chunks of the world. “The Gunman,” as fashioned by Penn and his collaborators, is an ugly, morally nebulous thriller that attempts to offer edification even as it panders to the lowest common denominator. Penn’s heart might have been in the right place, but it’s hard to tell since all you can determine from “The Gunman” is the size of his ego: it’s massive. [D]