Movie Review: “The Gunman” Is A Cliche-Loaded Misfire

Photos: Open Road Films

In an apparent effort to become the next Liam Neeson-style badass, Sean Penn has teamed up with “Taken” director Pierre Morel for “The Gunman,” a trivial action thriller with potential Razzie nominations in its future.

Based on the novel, “The Prone Gunman,” by Jean-Patrick Manchette, this globe-trotting genre piece is an unfortunate misstep for the award winning Penn, whose full-throttle-to-nowhere performance is constantly undermined by the foolishness surrounding it. An all-around forgettable affair, with a nonsensical screenplay, half-baked characters and a generally campy air hanging over it all, it would be hard to imagine audiences enjoying this film for anything other than ironic purposes. Not even the supporting work from the likes of Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone and Idris Elba can save “The Gunman” from being sniped out by its own uneasy mixture of asinine action and contrived drama.

The film begins in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a Special Forces vet, is working security at a mining site as a cover for his latest assignment: assassinating the country’s Minister of Mining. Following the hit, which was privately contracted, civil war breaks out across the Congo, forcing Jim to flee the country and leave behind his humanitarian girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca).

Cut to present day, the conscience-scarred Jim is back in Africa, now healing his mental wounds by riding waves and working for an NGO that provides clean water to villagers. Battle scars aside, the glass is looking half-full for the freakishly ripped yet perpetually chain smoking Terrier – that is, until three hired guns ride into town looking to kill him.

After disposing of these hapless goons, Terrier jets off to Europe to uncover who put a price on his head, and why. Along the way, he reunites with Annie and learns that his pursuers are affiliated with the Congo hit. But with time running thin and assassins closing in, Jim races against the clock to unearth the truth before it’s too late.

Said to have been inspired by the crime dramas of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, “The Gunman” seems more closely aligned with the Luc Besson school of filmmaking. Characterized by high-octane thrills, frenetic pacing, revenge plots and alarming body counts, these Euro action films occasionally hit the mark (“Taken,” “Lucy”), but more often than not fall short, as is the case here and with the director’s previous film, “From Paris With Love.”  

Much of the problems stem from the superficial screenplay, credited to Don Macpherson, Pete Travis and Penn himself, which is basically a grab bag of genre clichés and one-note characters haphazardly strung together. From the farfetched romance and Third World unrest all the way down to the alleged world of contract killing in which the story is set, false notes are hit at nearly every turn. And while audiences may find the barrage of explosions and blood-spilling fight sequences sufficiently diverting, those in favor of coherent storylines will have a tough time reaching the end credits.

Should you decide to hang in there, or go at all, do so if for no other reason than to watch Sean Penn chain smoke. He’s a truly phenomenal smoker, possibly the silver screen’s greatest, right up there with Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. In fact, at some point the storyline became secondary to my curiosity of how someone with what appears to be a carton-a-day habit could be so thoroughly jacked; the man looks like he could bend steel over his head. Physiological curiosity aside, Penn is hands down one of our finest actors, which is why I’m chalking this action hero transformation up to either a midlife crisis (doubtful), financial hardships (more doubtful), or just a quality excuse to smoke like a thousand cigarettes a day (most likely).

By Lucas Mirabella

Running Time: 115 minutes

Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality.

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