Bookended by news clips and stock footage of Western exploitation of the people and resources of the Congo, you may be forgiven for thinking Pierre Morel’s new thriller The Gunman has larger political aspirations. This element feels tailor made for star Sean Penn, who also gets a shared screenwriting credit for helping adapt Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel The Prone Gunman. Instead, what you get is another in a line of action vehicles for aging actors looking for a late career revitalization. Morel, is, after all, the guy who helmed Taken and helped transform Liam Neeson into an onscreen ass kicking machine, so who better to take the lead here?
To be frank, I totally dig this aging action hero renaissance we’re in the middle of. Neeson obviously has the Taken films (though Run All Night is superior to all of those), Pierce Brosnan is keeping busy in his post-Bond era, and Selma Hayek (who, granted, is only 48-years-old) got in on the blowing bad guys away game recently with Everly. The movies may not always be great, or light the box office on fire, but in general this is a style of action movie that had really fallen by the wayside and been relegated to the direct-to-video market for years in favor of massive, CGI-heavy spectacle, and it can be a refreshing break from endless tentpoles.
For what The Gunman is, it’s decent. It’s a moderately engaging espionage-style thriller; the action bounces around the globe to exotic, gorgeous locations, like the Congo, Barcelona, and Gibraltar; and Morel stages a handful of solid, workmanlike action sequences. The conspiracy at the center of the film is, admittedly, weak and convoluted to the point incoherence. You never really know why the villains do what they beyond a very basic level. Then again, you don’t really care.
Penn proves to be a suitable badass, and carries himself well. You certainly believe he’s a world-weary tough guy who has seen some shit in his days, and as you see during the many times he takes off his shirt, the 54-year-old is a crazy balance of jacked and grizzled. He plays James Terrier a former special forces mercenary-for-fire providing private security for NGO’s in the Congo. But his team also has a side contract to do some “bad things” as he says, like assassinate a Congolese leader trying to kick out foreign mining interests. Eight years later, now retired from the life and actually working for an NGO, Terrier’s past catches up with him, he gets a face full of blowback for his previous life, and he has to dig through his history to unravel the mystery of who wants him dead.
Morel and the script employ a number of tired, overused genre devices. Terrier’s health is failing, the cumulative effect of a lifetime of abuse and trauma leads to his mind slipping away, so he has to take detailed notes in order to remember important information, and has random “spells” or “episodes.” There’s a bullfight as visual metaphor for a climactic scene. And, of course, the real drama and conflict all boils down to a long lost love, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), the woman he had to leave behind who shows up again as an object in danger to be used to compel the hero into motion. She’s also the sole female character of any importance to be found.
The Gunman totally wastes most of its fantastic supporting cast. Ray Winstone plays Stanley, Terrier’s last real friend, and milks more emotional engagement out of the part than you find in the primary romantic relationship. Javier Bardem at least appears to be having fun as Terrier’s ex co-worker-turned-enemy, full of drunken swaggering bravado. Idris Elba has maybe four scenes, one of which consists entirely of a single shot of him answering the phone, and a dozen or so lines, but he does have two credited stylists to tend to his very, very short hair.
For all of its flaws, The Gunman has a handful of strong, tense scenes. They’re fairly standard spy thriller affairs, like when Terrier and Annie must evade a team of assassins sent to take them out. You’re not going to get anything you haven’t seen before, but they are legitimately engaging and stressful, Morel stages them for maximum tension, and there are enough to mostly make up for and balance out the doldrums of weary melodrama. He even throws in a few Hitchcockian visual flourishes for good measure.
A movie that you’ll never have cause to think of after you walk out of the movie theater, The Gunman wants to be something much greater than it is. The political element is tacked on, the story is not nearly as intricate or clever as it thinks it is, and the whole film is drastically overlong. It isn’t a bad watch, it just isn’t anything particularly special or interesting, and a few absorbing cat-and-mouse sequences aren’t enough to elevate this above a movie you might enjoy some night on cable when there’s nothing else on. [Grade: C-]