The Gunman

Sean Penn's violent past comes back to haunt him in this taut thriller

The Gunman

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Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, Peter Franzén, Jd Roth-round, Peter Brooke, Deborah Rosan.
Written by: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

A mercenary’s violent past comes back to haunt him in The Gunman, a sleek, adult thriller bolstered by a terrific cast and taut action direction from Luc Besson protégé Pierre Morel, who previously made the first Taken film and From Paris with Love.

Like Taken, which turned Liam Neeson into an unlikely action hero (a persona that the star has been capitalizing on ever since), The Gunman fashions 54-year-old Sean Penn into a man with a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career. The role might be atypical, but the grizzled, buff actor (who struts his stuff in a brief surfing sequence) seems like a perfect fit – his face reveals more about this character than any dialogue could. 

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And as you might guess by the presence of Penn in the lead, The Gunman has a little more on its mind than straight-up B-movie action formula. The film opens in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, and involves humanitarian work, mining contracts, and African politics. 

Penn plays Jim Terrier, a mercenary working for the mining company who keeps his job a secret from girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a local NGO aide. When a new minister wants to cancel his company’s mining contracts, Jim is sent to take him out, with the stipulation that he must leave the country – for good. Of course, the hit has been organized by Felix (Javier Bardem), who is not-too-secretly in love with Annie.

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After this extended prologue, we flash-forward eight years to present day. Jim is back in the Congo, now working for an NGO himself and harboring deep regrets about his past work as a mercenary. He hasn’t seen Annie since he left the country. But he maintains his composure during the rogue surfing sessions, for which he gets a firm tsk-tsk from his superiors. 

But if all this sounds a little too heavy, don’t worry: once the plot kicks into gear, The Gunman never looks back. When armed soldiers start looking for the ‘white man’, Jim connects the dots to his past life. Now, he must travel to London and Barcelona to find out who’s trying to kill him, and probably kill a few dozen people along the way.

At its worst, the film gets preachy and self-serving – Penn also served as co-screenwriter and producer – but when it sticks to the action, it soars. Director Morel is an ace at staging at shooting these sequences, which include a gunfight at a Spanish estate and chase during a bullfight. There may not be a whole lot new here, but much of the film is tense and exciting, with the script attempting more of a Jason Bourne/James Bond thing rather than a straight-up Taken-esque actioner. 

It’s also aided by a terrific cast who know exactly what kind of material they’re working with. Penn anchors the film doing his usual thing, but the supporting cast offers a little more flavor: Bardem’s Felix is a flamboyant drunk who carries a champagne flute during a gunfight, Ray Winstone is a London brute and the only man Jim can trust, and Mark Rylance is wonderfully hammy as Jim’s former merc mate, now a corporate goon. 

Finnish actor Peter Franzén is memorable as the key agent on Jim’s trail. Idris Elba shows up late and has little screen time as an Interpol agent on the case, but he, too, is a welcome presence. Trinca, unforgettable as the daughter in Nanno Moretti’s The Son’s Room, is seductive and sexy throughout.

Penn’s Jim also suffers from debilitating headaches that render him unconscious in the midst of gun battles. This kind of thing was original back when the hero of A Minute to Pray… A Second to Die went into epileptic seizures at the most inopportune moments; by the time Kevin Costner went into hallucinations during the gunfights in 3 Days to Kill, it became laughable.

But The Gunman uses this device well – it’s nice to give the hero an age-appropriate weakness that adds a little more tension to the proceedings. See also: Dying of the Light, where Nicolas Cage hunts down a terrorist while battling dementia.

Unjustly trashed by many in advance reviews, The Gunman is a perfectly satisfying action-thriller, lean and efficient even at a lengthy 115-minutes, that may not fully succeed in its lofty ambitions but provides plenty of entertainment just the same. It’s not Taken, but that’s a good thing: this is the kind of adult, literate – but still fun – action movie you can feel comfortable recommending to your father.

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