‘Gunman’ film underwhelms

Alan Johnson

The first few minutes of “The Gunman,” starring Sean Penn, were drastically more interesting than the rest of the film. News footage shows that tensions in the Congo are high, with civilians and the government butting heads over the region’s natural resources. Presumably, this will be a movie that has something to say about the corruption and death toll in many African countries that Americans either don’t know about or don’t care enough to learn about what is happening. Unfortunately, the latter is exactly the case of “The Gunman,” which transforms into a typical Hollywood action flick in its remaining 115 minutes.

  Adapted from the Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1981 novel “The Prone Gunman,” the film “The Gunman” is about a former mercenary, played by Penn, who finds trouble eight years after his last assassination and must escape Interpol and hit squads while he attempts to discover who is trying to kill him.

Director Pierre Morel also directed the first “Taken” movie, which is known for great, dramatic action and Liam Neeson’s many stunts, so the action sequences in “The Gunman” disappoint by comparison. By my count, there are only three major action set pieces and only the first one is any good. In particular, the last set piece, set at a bullfight in Barcelona, was so boring that I found myself thinking about the lack of security in the stadium rather than focusing on the action in front of me.

  The unsatisfactory action scenes suffer from the same problem that plagues the whole film. “Taken” is a considerably better film for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is that it came out a full six years earlier. However, “The Gunman” seemed to ignore the humor and fun that was clearly evident in the earlier film. Neeson is 62 years old and, while I’m sure he could hold his own against a few of the more sedentary students on campus, he would be hard pressed to beat up you or me. “Taken” doesn’t attempt to justify the preposterous plot and instead has fun with Neeson killing European traffickers.

There is no sense of fun in “The Gunman.” You feel every blow that Penn takes, taking no joy in any of the fight scenes. In another film, this would have been an interesting exploration of violence and how unglamorous it is in real life. However, with an outlandish plot and an unconvincing action star in Penn, the gritty violence just doesn’t work and sucks the life out of the film.

  While the cast includes many great actors that are clearly having fun with the somewhat ludicrous script, including Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Javier Bardem, your enjoyment of the film will come down to your opinion and enjoyment of Sean Penn. He is one of the producers for “The Gunman,” and this is probably his biggest film since his Oscar-winning role in “Milk.” Additionally, his personal life has completely overshadowed his film work in recent years. In fact, I’m sure many people hadn’t heard of Sean Penn in years until his recent ill-advised joke about immigration at this year’s Oscars ceremony.

Penn, a nominally dour dramatic actor, tries to use this film as a career pivot to take advantage of the recent old man action movie craze. He came physically prepared for the role, gaining so much muscle that he looks almost like The Rock, if The Rock skipped a few gym days. He spends most of the film shirtless or sleeveless, finding reasons to show off his newly ripped physique in lieu of interesting scenes that add to the narrative. However, “The Gunman” is not bad enough to end the recent influx of movies about middle-aged men beating up people half their age. If Sean Penn is making one of these films, it seems that every male actor will eventually get his own. I, for one, do not look forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Sniper” in 2030.