The Gunman is the first pure action picture Sean Penn has ever starred in, a considerable feat for an actor whose career spans 34 years yet has never succumbed to the temptation of cashing in on a brainless timekiller. Penn’s presence piques your curiosity: There must be more to this globe-hopping shoot-’em-up than your typical Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson vehicle. With a supporting cast that includes Javier Bardem, Idris Elba and Ray Winstone, and with a script co-written by Penn himself and based on a well-regarded novel by the late French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, this one has to have some meat to go along with the gunplay, right?
Sadly, no. Penn remains a furiously committed method actor, even in a paycheck role such as this one. He disappears into the role of Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces sniper turned assassin who killed a high-ranking government official in the Republic of Congo six years earlier and is now targeted for extermination himself by the same man (Bardem) who hired him to carry out the job.
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Penn takes a dead-serious approach to the role, transforming his body into the jacked, buff physique of a bodybuilder, which explains why he’s often shirtless in the film (”I didn’t spend this much time in the gym for nothing!”). But the 54-year-old actor is actually a detriment to the movie, because this trite scenario — he’s playing a rogue agent trying to outsmart his former bosses, like Jason Bourne — has no use for his talent, other than the intensity and concentration he radiates when he’s trying to extricate himself from an impossible situation.
The Gunman was directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed Taken and From Paris with Love, both of which centered on American hit men/government agents wreaking havoc throughout Europe, too. Morel has an impersonal filmmaking style — he’s good at orchestrating mayhem, but people don’t seem to interest him much — and the movie feels like it’s going through the motions whenever it stops on Jim’s old friend and informant (Ray Winstone) or his former girlfriend (Jasmine Trinca), who is now sleeping with the enemy and has a knack for landing in constant peril.
The Gunman isn’t offensively bad, and to the director’s credit, it feels a lot shorter than its two-hour running time. But aside from the spectacle of Penn taking a paycheck role as seriously as he took Dead Man Walking or Milk, there’s absolutely nothing new here, except for a sequence set at a bullfighting ring in Spain, in which one of the animals busts loose and goes on a rampage. The movie’s half-hearted attempt to give the story some political bite is drowned out by the gunfire, which seems to interest Morel the most. For a few minutes there, The Gunman achieves the sort of R-rated, bloody fun the trailers promised. But soon, it’s back to the same-old, proving that even serious, Oscar-winning actors sometimes need a little extra cash to help pay the bills.
Cast: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone.
Director: Pierre Morel.
Screenwriters: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn. Based on the novel “The Prone Gunman” by Jean-Patrick Manchette.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.