It’s some fast times for a weary CIA spy in Pierre Morel’s schlocky thriller featuring Penn as a feisty character named Jim Terrier
Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Running time: 115 minutes
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
Old actors never die, not these days anyway. They just turn into action stars.
And while there is a perverse thrill in seeing Colin Firth, for instance, dropping the Mr. Darcy charm to kick butt in Kingsmen, or Liam Neeson glowering his way through several Taken films — taken but not stirred — it is missing from watching Sean Penn flexing his anger in The Gunman.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, a special ops soldier working as a private contractor in Congo. He and his team seem to be there to protect some aid workers, but in fact they are secret killers, and Terrier is chosen to assassinate a Congolese politician, whose crime is refusing to give in to the private mining companies who would rape the land for private gain. The Gunman is schlock, but it’s all dressed up in liberal mantra.
Jim flees, leaving behind Annie (dishy Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, whose signature outfit is a long white shirt worn post-coitally to hide her modesty and who is known, in moments of peril, as “the girl”) and Felix (Javier Bardem), leader of the team whom we first meet slavering over Annie and watching her with dark jealousy. Director Pierre Morel — who, as it happens, guided Neeson through the first Taken film — is not one to overlook the obvious.
Eight years later (always a sign of trouble in an action film) Jim is back in Congo, doing real humanitarian work and trying to make up for his earlier malfeasance. When someone tries to kill him, he realizes that his earlier mission has been uncovered and someone from the past is after him.
This plot, based on a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, seems ideally suited to Penn’s persona as a grumpy do-gooder — he is famously committed to rebuilding Haiti — but Jim is a preposterous concoction. He constructed as a brooding killer wallowing in the existential angst of an unhappy past, but Penn stalks through The Gunman with pinched dyspepsia, looking as if he can’t wait to punch someone in the nose. In fact, he does so on numerous occasions, wearing an expression of pained resignation that is familiar to anyone who has attended one of his film festival press conferences. The movie also gives him “post-concussion syndrome,” a sort of rich man’s battle fatigue, which comes in handy when the movie needs him to be domitable for a second.
He is, however, is superb shape and The Gunman wastes no opportunity to have him remove his shirt — he’s topless more than the girl — and show us a couple of arms that wouldn’t be out of place hanging from Sylvester Stallone’s shoulders. Penn may have lost some of his acting chops, but he has compensated by perfecting his karate chops.
The Gunman travels to a few picturesque spots, including Barcelona and Gibraltar, in the manner of some of the earlier, lesser James Bond films, and while the plot hinges on some finely tuned sensibilities — aid to Africa, the evils of private corporations and so on — it doesn’t reach the sophistication of a John LeCarre expose to which it strives. As compensation, there is a fine crew of supporting actors, including Ray Winstone, Idris Elba and Mark Rylance, who add a layer of sheen.
Best of all is Bardem, who has gone in a different direction in his career and turned himself into an action villain. Bardem has a great scene of drunken abandon in which he collapses into a puddle of betrayal, resignation and what might be called joie de mort. Or it could just be gratitude that he doesn’t have to stick around until the end.
5 Must-See Sean Penn Movies:
Milk (2008): Penn got his second Oscar for this performance as gay activist Harvey Milk in a strong and richly felt performance that embraces Milk’s sexuality without a hint of stereotyping.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004): Based on the true story of a loner who wanted to kill the president, this is in many ways Penn’s Taxi Driver: a portrait of dark obsession.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999): In Woody Allen’s tribute to the legend of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Penn shows that his intensity can also serve a thoughtful comedy.
Dead Man Walking (1995): Penn’s portrait of a merciless killer who becomes humanized by the attentions of a prison nun (Susan Sarandon) manages to make you feel her compassion for him.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): Young Sean Penn is hilarious as the indelible Jeff Spicoli, the gnarly stoner who was the quintessential surfer dude at the back of every high school class.