Sean Penn turned into Charles Bronson so fast we hardly noticed.
Having a midlife crisis? Grab a gun and have some fun, as The Gunman would say. Or brood, rather. This is the latest in a long line of older actors proving that they have some skin in the game. And boy is Sean Penn’s hide leathery and lean, and just plain mean. The Gunman is among the surliest of its kind, an elder actioner of unrelenting violence and preachy geopolitical ardor. But above all, Penn looks tired, and this movie grows more and more tiresome with every kill.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, the “gunman” that’s somewhat haunted by a sniper job he performed in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He runs with mercenaries, but he has his Italian babe Annie (Jasmine Trinka) by his side. He’s a tough guy — just look at his Bronson mustache and veiny arms and Kevlar vests. Leather coats are for sissy European types like Liam Neeson. Penn’s harder than that. But he surfs to achieve zen, dude.
Just moments after we meet Jim, he’s forced to take out a minister that was threatening contracts he was working under. As part of his arrangement, he has to leave the country and his woman. He abandons her, no questions asked, because that’s the nature of the job, but for real, he feels lousy about it, OK? Worse, there may have been conspiratorial things at play as his colleague Felix (Javier Bardem, at his most amusingly nefarious) had googly eyes for Annie.
Fast forward eight years. Jim’s back in the Congo, making amends for sins of the past. But he can’t escape them and is vaulted into a worldwide conspiracy. He may have post-traumatic stress, head injuries, and a repressed bloodlust to him, but at least he’s not crazy in assuming that he’s wanted dead. He’s a sin to be erased.
At this point, The Gunman shoots automatically. There’s nary a new beat to be found as Penn buffly takes on the system and gets to talk tough with character actors (Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance). There’s practically zero character development or charisma as Penn’s Jim broods tirelessly. As Jim stabs faces or punches women in the left temple, his face screams, “Why must I be so good at killing?!” It’s a strange persona, because he wants to be an avenging angel, but Jim’s no angel, and he’s avenging nothing but his reputation. It’s a flinty, unsmiling action film for sociopaths and bad boys. Maybe there’s amusement in seeing clearly drawn bad guys get sensational deaths … but did you read the part about the temple? Charles Bronson at least had some mercy to his killing.
The Gunman was helmed by Pierre Morel, the director of Taken and kind of the godfather of the grandpa-gets-his-gun trend. Say what you will about Taken’s irresponsible xenophobia and lack of consequences. It was efficient and simple. The Gunman not so much. It feels like the end result of genre metastasization.
The Gunman’s most notable quality is just how cliché-riddled it is. Its munitions include but are not limited to a helpless woman, smoky, guilt-ridden ennui, haphazard handheld camera, barrages of bullets that seldom hit the required target, stock photography foreign locales, and plenty more. To its credit (maybe) is how retrograde The Gunman feels. If you like your action heroes loaded with guilt, yet still enacting in and getting away with malicious and choreographed behavior, then by all means, have a blast. Penn’s happy to hand over the bullets.