Directed by Pierre Morel

Starring Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance

According to Howard Hawks, a great movie (and he oughtta know) has three great scenes and no bad ones. Using that as out lodestone, maybe we could say a good action movie has three decent action scenes, no limp exposition. By those lights, this latest effort from Taken director Pierre Morel is not a good action movie: whatever thrills are to be found in his rapid-cut fight sequences are largely mitigated by the plodding narrative.

The Gunman isn’t a part of the Besson/Kamen stable of Euro-centric geriactioners, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, so closely does it follow the established pattern. Sean Penn is Terrier, our lethal, soulful protagonist, who finds his past coming back to haunt him years after he pulled the trigger on an important politician in the Congo and had to flee Africa, leaving behind both his career as a mercenary and the woman he loved, aid worker Annie (Jasmine Trinca). In the intervening years Terrier has tried to atone for his past by becoming an NGO volunteer himself, and he’s working in the Congo once more more when assassins come gunning for him. Terrier sets off for Europe (Spain for the most part, which makes a nice change of pace from Paris, scenery-wise) to interrogate his old comrades as to who could be after him and why.

The Gunman is most interesting when it swerves off the beaten path, although whether it’s interesting-good or interesting-bad varies from case to case. Terrier dealing with not just bog-standard PTSD and survivor’s guilt but actual brain damage from all the mayhem he endured as a private military contractor is a potentially intriguing idea, although in effect it just serves as a way to occasionally handicap his prodigious combat skills  when the plot requires him to not decimate whoever’s bothering him at that particular moment. And while we’ve seen plenty of meditations of the cost of violence, both personally and politically, Penn’s weathered, hangdog looks, coupled with the weight of his public political stances, lend the proceedings a certain in-the-moment pathos, even if the plot doesn’t follow the film’s themes to their obvious conclusions.

Penn is surrounded by a pretty good supporting cast here, including Ray Winstone as an old comrade and  Idris Elba as an Interpol agent investigating the current activities of Terrier’s former employers. He also shares the screen with Javier Bardem, who is… less than successful. Bardem can be an eccentric performer, and a strong director can shape his excesses into an effective, often captivating presence. For all his skills at staging action, Morel does not have the chops to rein in a full-tilt Bardem, whose boozy turn as the company liaison who has married Annie in Terrier’s absence and may have something to do with the assassins on his trail has to be seen to be believed. Bardem delivers one of those tone-shattering, off the leash performances that are hilariously out of step with the film struggling to contain them, and it’s pretty amusing if you ignore the fact that it’s basically sweeping the legs out from under the film.

Those legs weren’t too sturdy to begin with, though. The Gunman‘s biggest problem is its leaden pace and woefully po-faced attitude. Morel is more than happy the let his editors clock up the overtime when it comes to slicing up his action scenes faster than the eye can see, but outside of combat his understanding of suspense or even the basics of drama are wanting. The film limps along, a dour procedural, apparently suffering under the delusion that a dull pace will balance out the frenetic bursts of action, resulting in something worthy.

It doesn’t, of course. We’d all be much better off if all pretensions were jettisoned – along with about 20 minutes of running time – and The Gunman embraced its pulpy genre roots. The skeleton of a good thriller is clearly evident, and that’s perhaps the most frustrating thing – with just a little more care, this could have been a perfectly serviceable action flick. Instead, it’s subpar. In the right mood, you might give it a passing grade, but you’d have to be in a markedly forgiving mood.


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