by Hope Madden
Taken director Pierre Morel helms a film where a middle aged man with a particular set of skills finds himself marked for death and must shoot/stab/explode/punch his way out of it to redeem himself and save the one he loves. At first blush, The Gunman just looks like a Liam Neeson movie with a better cast, right? Not quite.
Sean Penn (2-time Oscar winner and 5-time nominee) goes beefcake as Terrier, the retired and oft shirtless gun-for-hire who gets pulled back in. Terrier was once a triggerman for a Democratic Republic of Congo assassination, but he’s carried that guilt and the remorse over a bad breakup for 8 years. Now, with a plot against his life (the contrivance that gets him into and out of hot water is beyond ludicrous), he sets out to make amends.
Penn cannot find his footing as an action hero. Yes, he now has the build for it, but his performance is laborious. Whether he’s smooshy and romantic or single mindedly ripping through foes, nothing has the honesty of his dramatic work or the exciting edge of an action flick.
Flanking Penn are Oscar winner and 3-time nominee Javier Bardem (arguably the best actor of his generation) and the endlessly underrated character actor Ray Winstone. Both men are worth watching, each chewing scenery just enough to keep their screen time vibrant and intriguing. Neither actor has ever turned in a lackluster performance, and this film needs that level of generosity and skill.
Unfortunately for us, the great Idris Alba is woefully underused and Terrier’s love interest Annie (Jasmine Trinca) is both predictably bland and, at twenty-plus years Penn’s junior, embarrassingly young for the effort.
Morel cannot find a usable path through the convoluted story and the only tensions that feel real at all are those in fleeting scenes between Penn and Bardem. There’s a murkiness to the script that requires more skill than Morel has ever shown, and the final product suffers from misplaced drama, uneven tensions, badly tacked on symbolism and misspent artistic capital.
At least with Neeson’s current catalog you know what you’re in for. The Gunman doesn’t know what it is. Too plodding to be an action movie, too obvious to be a thriller, too needlessly bloody to be a drama, The Gunman is a man without a country.