Does Sean Penn think his career is flagging?
Typically, a middle-aged star only agrees to take part in an over-50s action movie because he thinks his career is on the wane and he needs a sure-fire hit to reignite it.
Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, Keanu Reeves in John Wick and, of course, Liam Neeson in Taken and its myriad knock-offs are all evidence of fading stars finding a new lease of life playing the crumbling older leading man.
Yet, Penn is still very much a man in demand with a recent slate of movies that include awards-worthy turns in gay rights biopic Milk, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hardly the work of an actor whose best years are behind him, is it?
Which begs the the question of what on earth possessed him to agree to not only lead, but also co-write The Gunman, a muddled misfire of a conspiracy thriller that criminally wastes its high-calibre cast.
Penn actually equips himself surprisingly well as Jim Terrier, an ex-soldier working as private security for NGOs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, executing brutal fist-fights and explosive shootouts with a gritty and gruff style that suggests he would’ve made an excellent Bond prior to Daniel Craig’s casting.
The plot sees Terrier forced to flee the continent after assassinating the country’s mining minster, leaving behind his beloved girlfriend, Annie (Trinca). He resurfaces in the Congo eight years later when an attempt on his life forces him out of hiding to confront his past and uncover a wide-reaching conspiracy.
The trouble with Penn’s Terrier is that he is an almost totally unredeemable character, whose actions come across as those of a desperate man too afraid to face the consequences of the terrible things he has done for his own personal gain. It’s only thanks to the remarkable pathos that Penn manages to eke out of the role that Terrier appears as the marginally preferable winner when compared to all the other despicable shits who make up the remainder of the cast.
But by far The Gunman’s biggest problem is that it has muddled ideas about what it wants to be. There’s potential for a probing political drama with the film’s third world setting suggesting an attempt to tackle the role of western corporations in humanitarian projects, but aside from the two montages of grainy news footage that bookend the film, these issues are barely touched upon.
Director Pierre Morel also tries to structure the story like a scathing conspiracy thriller in the mould of Three Days of the Condor, but the twists and red herrings are frankly dull and far too predictable to hold any interest, while any notion of creating a high-octane action movie is resoundingly undermined by hollow and mechanical action sequences that resemble scenes picked up off the cutting room floor of Casino Royale.
This turgid and cumbersome plot leaves little room for the excellent supporting cast to make an impact, with the likes of Bardem, Rylance and Ray Winstone hamming it up to make the most of their limited screen time. Bardem, especially, is wasted in the role of potential conspirator and Terrier’s love rival, spending all of his brief scenes so theatrically drunk that it’s impossible to buy into him as a credible red herring.
Ultimately, only Penn can claim to come out of this slick but shallow film with any credit, managing to instil his character with purpose and pathos when his director only wants to marvel at his impressive physique. Which only makes you wonder all the more about why he chose to stoop this low in the first place?
Run time: 115 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 20 March 2015
Director: Pierre Morel; Screenwriter: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn;
Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca
Click here to watch the trailer for The Gunman