Published Mar 20, 2015If you didn't know it already, or hadn't figured out after hearing his "joke" at this year's Academy Awards, Sean Penn is kind of a dick. But underneath that rosy, meathead mask lays a humanitarian with a heart of gold.
Both sides of Spicoli are on full display in The Gunman, a semi-thoughtful action thriller that means well, but is ultimately overpowered by the film's rampant violence and half-baked plot points.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, a hitman for hire who, after assassinating a Congolese minister in charge of the country's mining industry, is forced to leave his lover behind and the mercenary team he works for.
Flash forward a few years (and one sexy surfing scene) later, and we find Terrier back in Africa, digging wells for less fortunate communities while trying to put his past behind him. But after becoming the target of a hit squad, Terrier must rifle through his past to determine who wants him dead, while also finding a way to reconnect with the woman he loves.
For what it's worth, Penn has the makings of a pretty fine action star. His faces looks like the result of a love affair between James Coburn and a baseball glove (ugly mugs are a must for these kind of adventures), and his brutish charisma seems perfectly suited for the style over substance storylines found in all Pierre Morel films. (The Gunman's big climax is set amongst a bullfight, because why the hell not?) But it's that same simplicity that makes this move fall flat. There are overarching messages about the pitfalls of privatized security, Western politics, mining and economies built upon all three, but any meaningful discussions this film may create are laid to waste next to the multiple dead and dismembered bodies Terrier leaves in his wake.
On top of that is an all-star cast that simply acts as expensive window-dressing for a film fully focused on broken necks and close-ups of Penn's veiny pectorals (this is truly the most we've seen Penn topless since Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Javier Bardem plays a money-hungry mercenary-turned-humanitarian with a dark past. And for all the importance they put on him in the trailers, Idris Elba (as Interpol agent Dupont) is restricted to only a few short minutes of screen time (including one strange scene where he uses the phrase "building a tree house" as a thinly veiled metaphor for linking a politically motivated assassination to a commercial organization).
Is The Gunman the next Taken? Probably not. But if The Gunman is nothing more than a stupid one-off affair and never turns into Morel's next pseudo-stylistic action franchise, fear not. There's always a place for aging action heroes, and it's called The Expendables.