Sean Penn, Humanitarian Killing Machine

The Gunman
(Spain/UK/France 115 min.)
Dir. Pierre Morel, Writ. Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn
Starring: Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca, and Javier Bardem.

Sean Penn wades into Liam Neeson territory in the ultraviolent new humanitarian revenge thriller and The Gunman. The humanitarian revenge thriller is a strange genre. A do-gooder with a sniper and sweet biceps works on wells as his day job and pumps lead into the machete-wielding and corporate suits by night? That’s weird. A lack of genetic compatibility offers a least one reason for which Craig Kielburger and Arnold Schwarzenegger will never have a child.

Even stranger, speaking of Arnold, is the uptick in over-the-hill action stars hitting the screen with guns a-blazing now that they’ve either won their Oscars or stopped trying. This genre is where Liam Neeson is a Viking: he’s Hollywood’s undisputed badass of the AARP. Neeson sells(ish) the old, weary, broken-down action hero because he does it all with a self-conscious cocktail of defeat and resigned acceptance. The dignity of Neeson’s persona and the lack thereof in his current films (minus The Lego Movie) makes the old dog actioner a novelty, especially now that he has fully appropriated and embraced said novelty. It’s a shame that The Gunman isn’t a Liam Neeson movie. I half-seriously mean that sentiment.

The Gunman brings far too much sternness as Neeson’s Taken director guides Sean Penn in a rare action role as humanitarian/gun-for-hire Jim Terrier. Terrier finds himself on the run and under fire when he pulls the trigger on a government official in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He ditches his girl, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), and gets outta Dodge (but then comes right back) and a bunch of baddies soon come wielding machetes and wanting revenge. Naturally, he blasts some holes in them.

Whatever happens in the first hour(ish) of The Gunman is never really clear as Penn looks at notes, flexes his biceps, scans flight manifests, flexes his biceps some more (they are impressive!), and puts the puzzle together whilst name-dropping a bunch of characters who have yet to appear or have appeared with fleeting screen time. The Gunman makes the headache extra meta by giving Terrier some unintelligible neurological condition—something akin to a crippling brain fart that comes and goes whenever shit gets real—to add an extra gimmick. (The ruse is a bit akin to the drug that gives weathered action star Kevin Costner three days to live in, well, 3 Days to Live.)

The Gunman frequently veers into the realm of the unintentionally ridiculous as Terrier trots the globe and pukes every now and then while reconnecting with Annie and the no-good NGO something-or-other played by Javier Bardem. Bardem is hilariously and delightfully awful with his over-the-top scene-chewing, and there are moments in which The Gunman genuinely plays well as campy, loony entertainment. Too many of the other actors, however hardly, seem to be in on the joke—cough, cough, Mark Rylance as Cox—while one burly, strapping bull (a real, actual bull with horns; not Sean Penn) ends the film with a good solid laugh.

The Gunman just takes itself far too seriously as Terrier defends himself and return fire in an all-out bloodbath that never finds a moral centre to justify its grimness. Penn, like Neeson’s first attempts at action, carries an air that clearly deserves better. Why does the same man who does commendable humanitarian work in between performances of searing depth and beauty (e.g. Mystic River) even want to make a film that roars into exotic locales and blows them to smithereens? The Gunman offers a talking point about the corruption within some aid circles and the interconnectedness of foreign governments and militia, but the muddled screenplay doesn’t bring it out forcefully enough against the brutal and relentless violence.

Penn admittedly fares very well even if the material feels beneath him. He looks the part of an action hero and his weariness makes Terrier a man who has seen far too much conflict for one lifetime. Morel also brings the same slickness and edge that makes the Taken franchise so appealing to some viewers, and The Gunman entertains enough, just not on that level of a guilty pleasure that saves the Taken franchise from its similar mix of silliness and senseless violence. Why don’t they all just make Red 3?

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Gunman opens in theatres on March 20th.

How does The Gunman fire for you?