Sean Penn tries to collect some of that sweet Liam Neeson money by teaming with Taken director Pierre Morel in The Gunman. Unfortunately, this doesn’t end up being a recreation of Penn’s movie-within-a-movie from What Just Happened.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, a mercenary who completes a job for his company by assassinating the Minister of Mining in the Republic of the Congo. The stipulation of making the successful hit is that Jim has to leave the continent and the woman he loves, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). He tells one of his team members, Felix (Javier Bardem), to watch over her. Cut to eight years later and Jim is back in the Congo doing humanitarian work digging wells. While on a site, Jim is attacked by a hit squad. He escapes and begins the hunt for answers. He first visits Cox (Mark Rylance), the guy who ran the fateful mission and is now stinking rich. Cox directs Jim to Barcelona and Felix, who—surprise, surprise—has married Annie. Felix immediately assumes Jim is there to take Annie away. Another hit squad arrives and Jim and Annie seek refuge with his friend Stanley (Ray Winstone). They try to unravel who is behind all this attempted murder, while Jim deals with potentially permanent brain damage from all the concussions he’s sustained—take that, NFL. Along the way, Interpol agent J.B. (Idris Elba) shows up to complicate matters, though I was hoping his initials signaled support for Elba to take over as James Bond in the future.
The film is based on a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and it is a convoluted mess. The problem mainly stems from Bardem, who acts like he literally stumbled in from a different movie. Felix is constantly drunk and is obsessed with Annie. The filmmakers make no effort to even disguise Felix’s obsession early in the film and then expect the audience to be surprised later when it is revealed he and Annie are married. It’s just a very predictable affair when you can finally figure out what the hell the film is about. I couldn’t tell if it was mainly about the mystery of who was trying to kill Jim or some kind of shoddy love story. This is where Bardem’s character complicates things. It felt like the producers handed him a different script from Penn each day. Once the second half of the film kicks in, it gets better, but it’s not great. The action is definitely more realistic and gritty than Taken, though, which was a nice touch. Also, I never really understood Jim’s deep guilt. Yes, he killed a guy, but Felix talks about several other atrocities that the audience never sees. If we had seen some of the other horrors of Jim’s time in the Congo, we would have understood his severely guilty conscience. If he wasn’t a killer in the first place, he would have protested the job a little more, so I can’t believe that killing one guy would have him so broken up.
Penn is fine in the role, but as usual in films like this, it’s the script that fails him. He’s suitably ripped as well and always looking for an excuse to take his shirt off. Trinca is good as Annie, but she’s basically relegated to damsel in distress status, so it’s impossible for her to be a very interesting character. Bardem, as already mentioned, is way over the top in this role. Maybe he still thinks he’s in Skyfall or The Counselor. Elba is completely wasted here and is only on screen for all of ten minutes.
Overall, while some of the action is gritty and decent, the script on The Gunman is a real mess. It doesn’t know what it wants to be and films of this nature don’t handle multiple subplots well. Wouldn’t mind seeing Penn in another action role like this, but he should probably stick with dramas.