Silver Screen: The Gunman **1/2
A few decades from now, when we’re huddled around trash fires roasting our Christmas opossums and gazing out over the post-apocalyptic hellscape, our gently mutated children will ask us to tell stories about the good old days before President Ted Cruz switched us over to an entirely crucifix-based economy. “Well,” we’ll say, winking back at whichever one of their new eyes seems the most focused, “it was a magical time when all we had to worry about was what gender the Ghostbusters would be. Gas was $3 a gallon— equivalent to about five-hundred crucifixes, or two medium-sized opossums— the world’s music taste was decided by preteen girls, and every actor got his own action movie franchise when he turned sixty.”
It’s a magical time, indeed. And now, presumably because he was passed over for the villain role in The Expendables IV: Still Expendin’, actor, humanitarian, and former Madonna abuser Sean Penn is getting into the action-movie biz. His latest is even directed by Pierre Morel, the Luc Besson disciple who gave Liam Neeson’s career a shiny new hip with Taken. The Gunman, based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, is more interested in nobility than popcorn catharsis, so it sometimes wags a finger at you for having too much fun, but it’s entertaining enough. Worth at least one large opossum, or three-hundred crucifixes. (In pre-apocalyptic terms, we’d call that “a renter.”)
Penn stars as Jim Terrier, a mercenary working security detail for a mining operation in the Congo. Jim and his ex-military pals do a little moonlighting as political hit-squad thugs under the guidance of shady businessman Felix (Javier Bardem). In 2006, a Congolese government minister makes a splash by declaring land rights in the mining towns up for grabs, and subsequently marksman Terrier is chosen to splash these big ideas all over the rear window of a towncar. Our man carries out the political assassination reluctantly— not because of the violence, but because it means he’ll have to leave the country without warning his longtime girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). That’s convenient for Felix, who covets Jim’s lady and is all too happy to get him out of Africa.
Nine years later, Jim is back in Africa as an aide worker, digging wells and trying to atone for the destruction he caused. During the chaos that ensued after the mining minister’s assassination, hundreds if not thousands of civilians died. Jim hasn’t forgotten that, and neither has some other mystery man who sends a carload of hitmen to end his well-digging days. This jolts our man back into action in the Congo, where he must track down Annie and find out which one of his old friends wants him dead.
The Gunman is too self-serious. That’s not a surprise coming from Penn, whose holy-liberal renegade persona doesn’t seem to allow much time for joking around. It’s ironic, given that the characters he has most totally disappeared into tend to be comic— Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s iconic Spicoli or as an underrated guitarist in Woody Allen’s equally underrated Sweet and Lowdown.
Despite its grave countenance, which matches star Penn’s constant furrow-and-sneer, The Gunman is diverting, if a bit antiquated. Morel is a decent choreographer of shootouts and fisticuffs, and ultimately he’s unable to resist amping up the body count and leering at the gaping head wounds. But in its better moments The Gunman distinguishes itself by having a conscience and a sense of consequences. The movie is attuned to the ripple effects of all the killing, not just on Jim’s inner circle but on the country and the world around him. It lends the movie some weight early on, even if that globalist concern comes off as a little heavy-handed and pious. (Only a Sean Penn action movie would begin and end with a European newscaster lecturing the audience about geopolitics.)
Penn is convincing both in his portrayals of contrition and unhinged badassery. His vanity gets the better of him in a number of shirtless sequences— battling in just a bulletproof vest to show off his vintage guns— but he makes a convincing brawler. With the exception of Ray Winstone, none of the supporting cast is given the opportunity to convey much charm, not even the fantastic Idris Elba, utterly wasted in a bland lawman role. Still, The Gunman works well enough as an old-school actioneer, even if its star is pretty damn old and it occasionally feels like sitting through school.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.