Action Adaptation

Film Review: The Gunman

March 20, 2015Ben MK

Point-blank Penn...

When it comes to action movies, you couldn't have picked a more unlikely leading man than Liam Neeson. Before starring in director Pierre Morel's Taken, the now-63-year-old was best known for his dramatic roles. Now, you'd be hard pressed to find a movie poster of him posing sans gun. Well it seems Sean Penn is looking to muscle his way into Neeson's territory, because he's teamed up with Morel for his newest film, The Gunman. But does Penn have what it takes to be the next big action hero, or is The Gunman just shooting blanks?


Penn star as Jim Terrier, a lethally-skilled trigger man who — at least when we first meet him — has a job providing private protection for aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the side, however, he and his colleagues, Felix (Javier Bardem) and Terry (Mark Rylance), have a lucrative gig running covert operations, such as their mission — dubbed "Operation Calvary" — to assassinate the nation's Minister of Mining.

Set in 2006, the film's opening sequence would have viewers believe that the unrest that gripped the DRC during its first democratic elections in 41 years somehow plays a key role in the plot. These hints of geopolitical intrigue are deceptive, though, as this line of storytelling is soon abandoned; and the movie quickly veers into standard action-thriller territory when Jim, upon the completion of Operation Calvary, is forced to flee the DRC, reluctantly leaving behind his girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), in the process.

Fast forward eight years, and we find Jim back in the Congo — this time, helping to bring much-needed humanitarian relief to its impoverished citizens. But it's not long before his old life catches up with him, as is evidenced by a violent attempt on his life made by a band of mercenaries. Of course, Jim manages to turn the tables on his assailants, after which he globetrots his way to London and Barcelona, where he seeks out Terry and Felix for answers about who might want him dead, and crosses paths with characters played by Ray Winstone and Idris Elba.

Along the way, Penn — looking mighty buff for a man of his years — engages in a handful of firefights and hand-to-hand skirmishes with an assortment of generic-looking bad guys. But while the action is more or less solid — even surprisingly bloody at times — it all comes off as somewhat underwhelming. There's a climactic sequence set during an arena bullfight (calling to mind an early scene from Quantum of Solace), but otherwise there are no truly memorable set-pieces to speak of, least of all anything moviegoers haven't seen before.

There's also the matter of the undercooked romance between Jim and Annie, which is rekindled after Jim makes his way to Barcelona and finds her married to Felix. The problem here is that the set-up for their entire relationship spans a mere two brief scenes near the beginning of the movie. Afterwards, it simply relies on the actors' non-existent on-screen chemistry, making it hard for audiences to care much about what happens to Annie as she inevitably gets entangled in the violent situation.

Otherwise, the screenplay by Penn, Pete Travis and Don MacPherson — which is loosely based on author Jean-Patrick Manchette's "The Prone Gunman" — attempts to inject some additional drama into the story by saddling Jim with a condition called post-concussion syndrome. As the film plays out, this translates into bouts of headaches, dizziness and memory loss, which explains Jim's need to keep meticulous notes of all his escapades. At times, it's even vaguely reminiscent of the plight of Guy Pearce's character in Memento. Ultimately though, Jim's affliction factors a little too conveniently into the plot line, making it feel more gimmicky than anything else.

The Bottom Line The Gunman may boast a cast brimming with Oscar-caliber talent, but when it comes down to it, this latest entry from Taken director Pierre Morel is little more than a mediocre clone of his earlier efforts. Still, this story about a former killer-for-hire pulled back into the fray for one last shot at redemption doesn't miss its mark entirely, as it at least meets the base expectations for what an action film should be. Just don't expect to see its star, Sean Penn, stealing roles away from Liam Neeson anytime soon.  Ben Mk

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