It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear of Sean Penn making a political thriller. It may surprise them to see him make one this bad. For years Penn has been involved in a number of humanitarian causes and numerous times he has thrust himself onto the political landscape. Sometimes it has resulted in great work while other times he has looked attention-starved and self-promotional. And despite his occasional foray into the bizarre, you like to think he is a man of conviction. From a movie perspective you like to think he can still act. “The Gunman” will leave you questioning both.
To be completely honest it wasn’t Penn who drew me to this movie. It was the supporting cast featuring Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Ray Winstone. Three great actors – all basically wasted by a film void of all energy, originality, or substance. Even Penn’s attempt to add a political edge comes across as preachy, moral high ground posturing instead of a thought provoking and substantive critique. All we are left with is the action and Penn’s buffed up physique, neither of which are enough to save the movie.
Penn plays Terrier, a member of an assassination squad working in the Congo. A contract comes to them calling for the assassination of the Minister of Mines. Terrier is chosen to carry out the mission and then leave the Congo to go into hiding. I’m assuming this is to protect his team and his unknowing girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Tribca). The Minister’s death unleashes violence and instability throughout the region. Years pass and a remorseful Terrier returns hoping humanitarian work can help atone for his sins.
But while working he is targeted by a hit squad which pushes him back into hiding. Convinced that the incident is connected to the Minister’s assassination, Terrier sets out to find his old squad to see what they know and warn them of a potential threat. One of his old mates is Felix (Bardem), now a wealthy alcoholic who, to Terrier’s chagrin, happens to be married to Annie. This adds a new complexity to Terrier’s search for answers, but it’s nothing compared to the trouble he runs into as he gets closer to the truth.
I mentioned how the movie wastes its supporting talent. Bardem’s character is paper-thin and other than a couple of times where he’s doing some serious scenery chewing, he is given nothing to do. Idris Elba finally pops up in the final act but only gets a couple of brief scenes. Ray Winstone plays the prototypical ‘mentor’ character to Terrier. You’ve seen this character so many times before and nothing about him deviates from the blueprint.
That brings us to Penn and specifically his approach to his character. Penn plays it ultra-serious the entire way never showing an ounce of humor and other than some painful grunts you rarely see any emotion. He constantly looks sour as if he had eaten some bad food and at times he seems more interested in showing off his biceps than the movie.
With “The Gunman” you ultimately end up with a dull, emotionally inert, slog of an experience. None of its components really work – the half-baked romance, the throwaway performances, the powerless political messaging. Even the big violent finale is as preposterous as anything you would see in a Van Damme straight-to-DVD movie. Some of the shootouts look pretty good but when there is absolutely nothing behind them and when they are treated this seriously, even they fall flat. Basically “The Gunman” fires nothing but blanks.
VERDICT – 2 STARS