This article was originally published to The Edge on 20th March 2015
Sean Penn appears to be following in Liam Neeson’s footsteps in The Gunman, going from a reliably intense and effective screen presence to an obscure action hero. You can’t say that he doesn’t try his hardest to make his character Jim Terrier a legitimate human, and to his credit he will be the last thing you could be disappointed with in Pierre Morel’s latest action flick. The emotions may be slightly oversold, but Penn’s Jim has a charm and vulnerability that Neeson’s Bryan Mills did not. You like him, you understand him, and you aren’t bored by him. A hard thing to manage given what the rest of the film is like.
Jim is an ex-contractor, working on humanitarian aid in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 8 years after he assassinated an important government figure of the same nation, and left his girlfriend Alice (Jasmine Trinca) behind. But when private soldiers attempt to kill him, he must go on the hunt for information, leading him back to her along the way.
Whatever Morel told his cast to get them to turn up must have involved pay checks. Ray Winstone plays his usual affable tough Londoner shtick, but with a terrible hairdo. Mark Rylance uncomfortably chews the scenery, and Javier Bardem sleazes up the screen from the second shot he’s in. It’s not quite his fault; the guy holding the camera frames Bardem in his expression to such a degree that neon lighting would be more subtle. Meanwhile the brilliant Idris Elba, second billing in the opening credits, is reduced to 5 minutes of (charming) screen time where he talks about treehouses. That monologue is some of the film’s best dialogue. The rest is not groan-inducingly stupid, it’s just boring.
As for that cameraman, his distinguished work extends to the action. All the blood splatter can’t save the fights in the end. Too many cuts and too much fumbling of handheld camerawork reduces the action to mere obstacles. Even good moments (a shootout in a country home, a backstage scrap in a bull ring) only just reach the level of functional: unimpressive and uninventive. That is the main issue with The Gunman: there are moments where you can see a much better film. The opening and closing news footage is derivative, but places the film in an interesting and morally complex territory; that footage is the only time those issues get explored, leaving the resulting morality and themes in a murky, unpleasant area. Early scenes that suggest a cooler, tenser plot with minimal violence are let down by the film’s indulgence in action. Elba and Penn could make this film better if they were buddying it throughout, but they have just one, minimally significant scene together. Penn’s relationship with Trinca is sweet at first, but grows frustrating as she quickly becomes a victim. All these parts suggest the intention was there to make an amnesia-less Bourne Identity style thriller. Pierre Morel however doesn’t have half the skill he would need to do that, even if his cast, a mixed bag here, could all pull it off.
The Gunman, directed by Pierre Morel, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.