Sean Penn Delivers A More Vulnerable Shoot 'Em Up Hero In "The Gunman"

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"The Gunman" starring Sean Penn opens March 20, 2015.

“The Gunman” is a rare foray into an action-heavy role for Sean Penn, who wrote and produced the film as well. Directed by Pierre Morel, the man who surprised us all with the taunt and darkly comic “Taken” film (which spawned a perhaps ill-advised franchise starring Liam Neeson, who in turn cannot seem to escape that role now) this action thriller is well-crafted but feels very familiar.

Penn plays Terrier, a mercenary posing as a relief worker in war-torn Congo. He strikes up a romance with a pretty doctor named Annie (Jasmine Trinca) just before his team, including Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance), perform their true mission: the assassination of a key Congolese government minister whose actions were detrimental to their contractor’s mining operations in the area. The film then jumps forward eight years and we find Terrier back in the Congo trying to assuage his guilty conscience. He’s soon targeted by a hit squad himself, and then we’re off to the races as he tries to track down who is trying to kill him. Is it someone representing the Congo? Is it one of the old team? Is it Felix, who is now married to Annie? Or is it as simple as personal jealousy?

While the early reviews are rather lukewarm, I enjoyed “The Gunman” quite a bit. Unlike Liam Neeson’s ice cold career CIA assassin character in “Taken,” Penn’s Terrier is a flawed and fragile action hero. He’s fighting for his life not just from the assassins that are gunning for him, but from the debilitating effects of advanced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He suffers extreme headaches, nausea, blackouts, memory lapses, and paranoia, although in his case that last symptom might be the thing that keeps him alive. At times he’s so weak he can barely stand much less pull the trigger. At other times, he’s a believable hand-to-hand combatant with outstanding survival skills. Leave it to Sean Penn to bridge the gap between his usual heavily nuanced roles and this John Rambo-like survivor. Penn looks pretty good for a man of 55 who hasn’t spent his whole career being known for his muscles.

Among the supporting cast, Javier Bardem is very engaging. You’re never entirely sure if you can completely dislike or distrust him. Felix is a deeply flawed man in his own right. By the time you figure out where he really stands it’s already too late. I won’t explain why that is, but I will say that I enjoyed Bardem in “The Gunman” more than I did as the Bond villain in Skyfall. Terrier is not completely alone in his fight, as his old pal and fellow merc Stanley (Ray Winstone, one of my favorite English character actors going all the way back to his turn as Will Scarlet in the mid-80s Robin of Sherwood series) provides logistical support and Interpol Agent DuPont (Idris Elba) gently guides him along, using Terrier to get the bigger fish behind this whole affair. Elba is a heck of a talent but he’s given maybe 10 minutes of screen time and that’s a generous estimate. I wish his role had been fleshed out more.

The writing is fairly solid and the story moves smoothly, but Penn gets a little heavy handed with his message, which is that corporate greed and private firms vying to control natural resources at the expense of human life is morally abhorrent. If I may editorialize briefly, Penn’s quite right. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that mining consortiums and many other industries (oil, almost certainly) might engage in such criminal activities In pursuit of resources they can control and thus profit from. Why isn’t more being done to stop disasters like the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the theoretical use of private security or mercenary teams to aggressively force indigenous people and wildlife away from the resources they wish to profit from? Ask your Congressmen or Senator. Don’t expect an answer, but keep an eye out for conversion vans suddenly appearing regularly in your neighborhood.  Also, while I’m of a mind to rant a little, if you bring your three year-old to this picture you’re a horrible parent, simple as that. There was at least one toddler sitting three rows in front of me and I think at least a couple of pre to very early teens on the other side of the auditorium. There is a lot of profanity, some partial nudity and more than a few very graphic deaths. Heads go boom. You’ve been warned. Rated R is there for a reason, people. If you let your kids watch stuff like this at home, or play violent, mature videogames before they’re out of grade school, that’s up to you. Run your house as you see fit. In public, show a little common sense and take the little kid to Spongebob’s movie instead. I used to work at a couple of theaters in my younger days, and I remember seeing managers refuse to let someone into a Rated R show with little children. For the good of the child and the enjoyment of the mature patrons, I wish theaters exercised more common sense themselves rather than just take people’s money with blinders on, hoping that you’ll head straight for the concession stand where cheap to make popcorn and soda will cost you more than a decent steak dinner. Sadly, once you’re inside a theater these days you’re more likely to see a unicorn than an usher or manager checking to make sure small children and cell phones aren’t distracting other guests. I’ll step down from the soapbox now.

If you think “The Gunman” is just another “Taken,” (and there is nothing wrong with “Taken”—it’s one of my favorite action movies) you’re only seeing the guns. Penn’s message, while driven home rather bluntly, is a bit deeper than Pierre Morel’s earlier effort. It’s a solid action thriller with more politically liberal undertones. It’s not merely a revenge plot, it’s a redemption story. In the classic hero story arc, things don’t usually turn out perfectly well for the hero, and this tale is no exception. It’s a more mature kind of shoot ‘em up flick and a solid precursor to the summer blockbuster fare on the horizon. No, it doesn't really do anything new or, as so many critics seem to expect, "reinvent the genre." What do people expect? There's only so many ways to do a shoot 'em up.

3.5 / 5.0