When you hear that The Gunman is a movie about an ex-paramilitary agent directed by the same guy who did Taken (the first one, anyways), you probably have quite a few expectations for what this new Sean Penn-starring action thriller is going to be. Namely, that it’s another aging star taking on an action movie. Yes, The Gunman is far more in the vein of a Jason Bourne film, but this is still an action thriller that doesn’t ever, ahem, shoot for anything much more than a few gun battles and some frat-pleasing fights, despite flaunting a cast that includes Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem, and Idris Elba.
As the film opens, Jim Terrier (Penn) is a private security contractor working for a mining company in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country in a constant state of civil war as rival governmental organizations, not to mention any number of companies like the one Jim works for, are on the lookout for their own best interests, body count be damned. Jim takes part in an assassination, and is forced to leave the DRC and his girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca, Saint Laurent), behind. Fast forward eight years, and Jim is back in the DRC, this time working for a humanitarian NGO working to drill wells to provide clean water to local villages. It’s his penance, and it’s going peacefully until some locals try to cash in on a bounty apparently placed on his head, and he’s forced once again to go on the run with people out to get him lurking in the shadows.
That initial setup is incredibly compelling, promising a personalized exposé on horrific injustices done to people in the name of stuff for the western world. At first, The Gunman trades heavily in real-world significance, using news reports to draw out the human cost of the ongoing rape of Africa’s natural resources. That’s before Jim starts reconnecting with his former crew to try to find out who wants to kill him, and it devolves into a bunch of gunfire exchanged between people we don’t care about that much.
This is the core problem I had with The Gunman. There’s some decent action on display, including a particularly satisfying scene where Jim outwits some would-be assailants at his Barcelona apartment, but this Jason Bourne analogue is missing the sympathy engendered by Bourne’s innocence. In The Bourne Identity and its sequels, amnesia means we can pretty fully absolve the title character of his past sins and fully support his desire to just be left alone and unmolested. Jim has a similar desire to be left alone, and we can even support his desire to do penitent charity work in the Congo, but he’s still a bad man, and one who spends most of the movie motivated not by his desire to do good, but by his desire to escape criminal prosecution and save his girlfriend. Still hard to fault him too much, but the difference between Jim’s penitence and Bourne’s total innocence (mentally, at least) made all the difference for me. The deadly violence throughout the film seems to be the result of bad choices made by bad people on both sides, and that’s just not very fun to watch.
There are some plot issues that play into this as well, namely the entire arc with Annie. Annie is the prototypical damsel in distress, and never anything more. She exists as a McGuffin so that Jim has a reason to put himself in harm’s way. There’s a sex scene when they’re reunited after eight years apart that’s intended to play as an emotionally fulfilling reunion; the entire theater I was in cracked up laughing because it came off looking ridiculous (particularly in context, which I’ll leave out because it veers into what might be regarded as spoiler-ish territory).
Penn actually does a pretty good job locking down the action required of him in The Gunman, looking convincingly the part of an ex-military man who’s still in good shape for his age. Still, “for his age” – he looks a little ridiculous pining after a woman 20 years his junior. The most annoying part of Jim, though, is completely beyond Penn’s control, in that Jim is facing down a gradually advancing brain condition that causes him to lose muscle control and black out whenever it’s plot convenient.
As for the rest of the cast, Winstone gets a pass because his character’s a supporting one and fully understood in the seedy hardass type that Winstone can play in his sleep. It’s both Bardem and Elba who feel criminally underutilized as Felix (a former member of Jim’s crew) and DuPont (an Interpol agent), respectively. Neither appears for more than half the film, and I’m pretty sure Elba got more screen time in the first Thor than he does here, while Bardem chews scenery without much discernible purpose.
The Verdict: 2 of 5
If all you’re looking for is some military types pointing guns at one another across a globe-trotting backdrop, The Gunman will be a great holdover until films like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre drop later this year. But there’s not much more than that here, despite some initially convincing pretenses to the contrary. If The Gunman had stayed closer to the sympathetic thematic material it introduces about the exploitation of Africa’s people and resources, it might have been easier to get behind; as is, its main character isn’t sympathetic enough, and its supporting cast is never given the space to elevate beyond set dressing.