Apparently Sean Penn has caught a few Liam Neeson flicks lately. For his first film since forgettable supporting roles in 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Gangster Squad, the two-time Oscar winner realized that he might have what it takes to channel his inner Neeson and kick some onscreen butt.
If only he had chosen a story that didn’t make you want to kick his butt.
Based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Gunman has all the trappings of a slick Tequila Sunrise/John Wick mash-up, but instead it’s dead on arrival with a cliched script, clumsy direction, and hefty dose of heavy-handed messaging.
On the surface Jim Terrier (Penn) is an operative helping keep the peace in 2006 Congo alongside his surgeon girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Behind-the-scenes, though, he’s a sniper for hire alongside Felix (Javier Bardem), Terrier’s shady compatriot who sees a government assassination as a way to steal Annie for himself. (“Sure a government minister is killed, and a country is sent into a civil war death spiral… but at least I get the girl!”)
Eight years later, the sins of Terrier’s past have caught up with him, so he has to globe-trot to get to the bottom of it all. (It’s a race against the clock! With his life on the line!) And just so there’s a little wrinkle in the goings-on, we also learn that Terrier is suffering from post-concussive trauma– headaches, dizziness, and blurred vision. (Boy, I sure hope the symptoms don’t pop up at the exact moment he comes face-to-face with the bad guy!)
I could go on and on (and on), but suffice to say that The Gunman doesn’t give you anything you haven’t seen before (with the sole exception of Trinca herself, who flaunts some true talent despite being shackled in a thin, damsel-in-distress role). Everything else is as insipid as it sounds, and the mess is compounded by the fact that the entire cast should have known better. Penn and Bardem are among the best at what they do, and Mark Rylance and Ray Winstone aren’t too shabby either. Heck, even the great Idris Elba is along for the ride, though it’s in a such a tiny, inconsequential role that even a struggling extra might turn it down.
Director Pierre Morel has proven that he has some talent, but The Gunman is much closer to his 2010 disaster From Paris with Love than his 2008 game-changer Taken (…speaking of Neeson). The fight choreography is often clunky, and Morel completely squanders his stunning locations, including Barcelona and Gibraltar.
Even basic cinematography rules get thrown out the window. Take, for example, the moments when we get inside Terrier’s head to see the blurry, woozy effects of the head trauma from his own point of view. It’s a nice touch, but Morel forgot it’s a two-way street; if we’re seeing someone through Terrier’s eyes, that person would be looking directly back at us, too– straight into the camera. But they don’t. So instead it’s just a conventional scene shot through a lens with a Vaseline smear. Odd.
To top it all off, along with being a clunky shoot-em-up flick and a transparent PSA for the dangers of head trauma, The Gunman also gives us a preachy meditation about government contractors’ meddlesome third-world interventions. So to recap– contractors: bad, concussions: bad, killing everyone you have to, so you can walk off into the sunset with the pretty lady: good.
It can actually be boiled down even more simply… The Gunman: bad.