Sean Penn Tries, Fails, To Become Liam Neeson In ‘The Gunman’
Hi, guys. I’m Tim Brennan, and I’ll be your film critic this evening. For the foreseeable future, as well.
I grew up in Boulder and got bit by the movie bug young. I’ve seen thousands of films, good, bad and ugly. I’ve also co-written several screenplays, which helped me to learn about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. For about the last year, I’ve been writing movie reviews for The Hollywood Billboard. Those kind folks helped me get going in the cutthroat world of online film criticism, and for that, I’m grateful.
Now, I’m here. Over time, we’ll certainly talk about the blockbusters and the Oscar bait. But with good timing and a little luck, we’ll also check out some independent and foreign films. Will it be dangerous along the way? Will we be exposed to nakedly manipulative crap, shameless cash grabs and brazenly foolish ego trips? Oh, yeah.
But there’s good stuff, too. Every year, there’s always good films released. Sometimes, you just have to dig a little bit for it. But it’s out there, trust me. Here’s the bad news. Our first film, The Gunman, is not one of those films.
Now, I don’t want to say that Hollywood is cowardly, per se. Let’s instead agree that Hollywood is…risk averse. It’s a business that operates on a simple principle:
If a thing works, that thing will continue to work until such time that it doesn’t work.
Director Pierre Morel’s latest film is proof of this concept. If you’re at all familiar with his work, it’s most likely from 2008’s Taken. That film gave a second life to the career of Liam Neeson. As an ex-spy with a very particular set of skills, he must recover his kidnapped daughter and kill the hell out of a lot of people along the way. It’s a movie that, while kinda dumb and sorta xenophobic, is also fun. It helped to establish a sub-genre of action movies – The Old Badass.
Neeson, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and others have all starred in Old Badass movies. At 54, Sean Penn is not yet old, but old enough to count. He’s an intense and somewhat picky actor, which makes the fact that The Gunman is his first pure action movie a real shame. It’s also very odd that Pierre Morel somewhat rips off one of his own movies.
Penn plays the amusingly named Jim Terrier, a shadowy hired gun working in the Republic of Congo. He’s undercover as an aid worker, but truly part of an assassination team. Among his teammates are Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance). After the Minister of Mines announces plans to socialize the natural resources, Terrier’s team is ordered to take him out to sow chaos. Terrier is the triggerman and successfully pulls off the killing, but due to a clause in his contract he’s forced to go into hiding and ditch Annie (Jasmine Trinca), his girlfriend and a doctor at a local free clinic.
Years later, Terrier has returned to Africa working for an NGO which builds fresh water supplies for poor communities. While working on a well, he’s attacked by a group of gunmen. After swiftly dispatching them, he must go on the run to discover who wants him dead. Along the way, Terrier partners up with Stanley (Ray Winstone) an old friend and fixer, and encounters Interpol agent DuPont (Idris Elba). Is it all connected back to the original assassination? Does a member of his team betray him? Are there lots of scenes of steely-eyed men barking dialogue and shooting at each other? Yes, yes and yes.
There’s a number of reasons why The Gunman doesn’t work, but chief among its sins is the fact that it’s laughably self-serious. The film not only wants us to cheer on Sean Penn slaughtering mercenaries, but mourn the fact that multinational corporations are exploiting the people and resources of the Third World. Hey, that’s a story worth telling (and The Constant Gardener told it much better), but there’s serious issues with the tone bouncing around. It’s almost like the film is embarrassed to be a globetrotting adventure, and tries to clumsily shoehorn in some social commentary.
The seriousness affects the cast as well. It includes some of the world’s best actors, but their charisma, for the most part, is dialed down. Bardem seems to be the only one who recognizes how ridiculous it all is, and gives an over the top performance as an emotional wreck. Idris Elba, the man who rightfully should be the next James Bond, gives a goofy monologue about tree houses, then vanishes for most of the film. Poor Jasmine Trinca, a solid Italian actor and the only notable female character, has nothing to do except panic, run, scream, and give Penn goo-goo eyes.
Now let’s talk about Mr. Penn. He’s buffed up, intense and fully committed to the role. Penn isn’t known for phoning in roles for a payday, like some actors (coughcoughBruceWilliscoughcough) I could name. He’s won two Oscars, deservedly so, and his repressed fury and intelligence have served him well. In the right action flick, Penn would be flat-out amazing. So why does he give his all to a project this mediocre, especially considering he co-wrote the script? Is he going for some of that Neeson Old Badass career rejuvenation? Was there a previous draft of the script that got him interested?
At the end of the day, the whys don’t really matter. The end result is another lousy action flick done by people who should know better. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your time. You want solid action? Go rent John Wick instead.