A film review by Craig J. Koban April 3, 2015

THE GUNMAN jj
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2015, R, 115 mins.

 

Sean Penn as Terrier  /  Javier Bardem as Felix  /  Ray Winstone as Stanley  /  Jasmine Trinca as Annie  /  Peter Franzťn as Reiniger

Directed by Pierre Morel  /  Written by Sean Penn, Pete Travis, and Don Mcpherson 

THE GUNMAN is a beyond obvious attempt for director Pierre Morel to return to the middle-aged action hero template that he popularized with the first TAKEN film.  This time, though, he has multi-Oscar winning actor Sean Penn at the helm, whom at a ripe age of 54 has never looked as ripped and chiseled as he does here.  Thereís no doubt that Penn certainly looks the part of a rough and rugged action hero and, at face value, seems to want to follow in Liam Neesonís footsteps of reenergizing and redefining his career (from being a stern and solemn dramatic star to a kick-ass action hero).  I have nothing wrong, per se, with Penn and Morel wanting to orchestrate a bruised knuckled, globetrotting thriller in the TAKEN vibe featuring a withered and aging protagonist.   

Alas, the main problem with THE GUNMAN is that it wholeheartedly lacks the sensationalistic and sordid grindhouse thrills of the first few TAKEN films.  This is a film Ė largely spearheaded by Pennís decent, but overly dour and charmless performance Ė that takes itself way, way too seriously.  Penn not only is the on-screen hero in THE GUNMAN, but he also co-produced and co-wrote the film, which means that a healthy dosage of real world topical themes (in this filmís case: Congo brutality, ecological sins perpetrated by big corporations, and natural resource exploitation) will factor heavily into the proceedings.  THE GUNMAN does indeed pose and ask some big issue questions during its running time, but it can never reconcile between being a weighty and high minded political thriller about mineral wealth in one African nation and an enjoyably blood-soaked action flick with a preposterously high body count.  This film wages war within itself, which has the counterproductive effect of leaving it feeling lopsided and sluggishly executed. 

 

 

Still, though, thereís an initial thrill to be had of seeing Penn transform himself into intrepid and ruthlessly lethal trained killer (granted, how his character manages to maintain a killer physique and limitless endurance levels while being a chain smoker is beyond me).  The film opens in 2006 in the war-ravaged Congo where a former Special Forces operative turned assassin for hire Jim Terrier (Penn) works as a security advisor for a mining company.  With a loyal band of fellow mercs, Jim partakes in all sorts of off-the-books clandestine missions, one of which includes killing the countryís Minister of Mining, whoís making matters rather difficult for the corporate big wigs that fund Jim and his men.  Needless to say, Jim and his squad are successful, but it leads him being forced to leave his life behind, including abandoning the love of his life Anna (Jasmine Trinca) without telling her know why. 

Eight years pass with Jim being on the run as an international fugitive, but he manages to eek out a life in hiding doing humanitarian work.  Unfortunately, when an apparent hit is placed on his life Ė most likely perpetrated by his former allies in an effort to permanently shut him up Ė Jim find himself on the run again.  He reconnects with Annie, whom is now married to one of Jimís former work colleagues in Felix (Javier Bardem), but when suspicions point towards him being part of a larger conspiracy, Jim is forced to take Annie in tow and escape death, not to mention that he must now desperately discover the identities of all parties that want him dead.  Trekking through Barcelona while avoiding all sorts of vile hitmen, Jim manages to put all of the convoluted pieces together to get a clear picture of his assailants and their motives, which forces him on the offensive. 

THE GUNMAN boasts solid direction from Morel, who beings some much needed style and pacing to the film, especially during moments when narrative momentum sometimes stalls to elephantine levels.  He crafts some brutally effective bone-crunching and artery spewing action sequences, which more than deserve the filmís R-rating.  Unlike TAKEN, Morel and Penn at least are attempting to infuse some meaningful themes into the proceedings that makes THE GUNMAN feel more politically and socially relevant than the average action-thriller.  There are not many Hollywood genre films like this that are trying to place its thematic crosshairs on how Western corporations abuse the people and mineral wealth of a foreign nation.  At the outset, Penn and Morel have legitimately interesting things to say in this film. 

Yet, itís the manner that THE GUNMAN approaches its would-be compelling story arcs and issues that ultimately does it in.  Itís one thing to throw problematic queries at viewers with real world ties, but THE GUNMAN never really addresses them in any meaningful discourse.  As a piece of frank political commentary, the film is very talky Ė make that extremely so Ė and has characters engage in ample dialogue exchanges explaining particulars, how characters relate to one another, and so forth.  Itís not really until the final 40 minutes or so that THE GUNMAN fully embraces its standardized action-thriller accoutrements and develops a more exhilarating forward drive, but by this point itís all for naught.  Also, for a film thatís trying to be crafty and intelligent with its premise, the script makes some stupid blunders in logic along the way.  And donít get me started on Jimís brain condition, a severe health malady that creeps up into the story early on for no other apparent reason but to make this seemingly unstoppable character conveniently vulnerable to his enemies later on.   

The film is awash with stellar actors that do what they can with the middling material that aggressively undervalues their respective characters.  Bardemís talent is wasted, playing what few scenes he has as a jealous drunk on autopilot.  Idris Elba and Ray Winestone both show up as two unlikely sources of support for Jim and they both give THE GUNMAN some class, albeit in heinously underwritten roles.  The luminous Jasmine Trinca is essentially reduced to pure window dressing and a pathetic damsel in distress.  If wasting the cast were not bad enough, THE GUNMAN then careens towards a spectacularly silly climax in a crowded bullfighting arena, during which time not one of the thousands of spectators Ė or any security guards, for that matter Ė seem to notice a heavily armed Jim facing off against his equally aggressive adversaries.  And you just know by this point that the main baddie is going to have a chance meeting with a rampaging bullís horns. 

Pennís attempts to reach Neeson-ian levels of action-hero bankability are respectable, but he never seems to infuse much warmth or humor in his character at all.  Heís essentially a robotic killing machine thatís hard to relate to and develop a rooting interest in.  I found myself enjoying the action beats here in modest dosages, and Morel is a good architect for delivering on-screen mayhem.  Regrettably, THE GUNMAN is pretty shapeless and muddled overall in terms of exploring its noble intentions and themes and eventually devolves into obligatory been-there-done-that chases, fist and firefights, and wanton senselessness.  After seeing TAKEN I genuinely yearned to see the next hard-edged Neeson cinematic slugfest featuring his character seeking bloody retribution.  After seeing THE GUNMAN I yearned to see Penn return to his comfort zone of dramatic films and stay away from action-thrillers altogether. 

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