‘The Gunman’ shoots blanks


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Three-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn takes part in the growing trend of aging movie stars playing action hero roles, similar to Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson.

By Film Critic

Hollywood’s strategy for the last several years has been to have older actors like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson become parodies of themselves in recycled action romps. As the big actors of the ‘90s and 2000s expire, so will this trend. The idea worked for Liam Neeson in “Taken,” and the film industry has been inundated with similar thrillers ever since. 

Seven years later, “Taken” director Pierre Morel is taking another crack at his tried and true formula with “The Gunman.” This time, however, our lead role is played by 54-year-old Sean Penn, joined by fellow acclaimed actors, Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men,” “Skyfall”) and Idris Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” HBO’s “The Wire”). 

Morel began as a cinematographer, collaborating with fellow French filmmaker Luc Besson. Though his plotlines have never been considered stellar, he established himself as having an eye for action with “The Transporter” in 2002 and his directorial debut “Banlieue 13.” The first installment of the “Taken” franchise, earning more than $200 million worldwide. established him as a master of this form. There’s certainly money to be made in the genre of careless action thrillers, but “The Gunman” meanders between stale severity and hollow shoot-out sequences. 

Penn plays, James Terrier, a mercenary in the Democratic Republic of Congo who sports a Magnum, P.I. getup. When a local official threatens to hamper a big mining operation, Terrier’s team is ordered to kill the man. In a scene visually  and stylistically different from the rest of the movie, Terrier is chosen to pull the trigger on the hit job. He does, and he is immediately forced to go into hiding, consequently abandoning his girlfriend Annie, played by Jasmine Trinca. 

The film’s hero goes from plunging central Africa into turmoil to surfing some rad waves eight years later. These two scenes are shown back-to-back as if the audience is expected to admire a cold-blooded killer simply because he can surf, even though he lost his wicked cool mustache and Hawaiian shirt combo. He’s still working in the D.R.C., only now he’s volunteering for the good of the country, similar to how real-life Penn is known for his humanitarian efforts. His work comes to a screeching halt when he learns that an unknown organization has put a hit out on him. He then hunts the globe for his aggressors to find out who wants to kill him and how he can stop them. 

Terrier has redeeming qualities other than the ability to feel guilt,  which is not a particularly interesting trait for the focus of a movie, especially one as simultaneously preachy and mindless as “The Gunman.” The supporting cast proves to be largely inconsequential to the plot—a shame considering all the talent wasted. Bardem plays a pompous drunk contact from Terrier’s old days. Romantic interest Trinca brings an uninteresting love triangle into the mix. Her character is so irrelevant that she would have been a better fit in a misogynistic James Bond movie. Idris Elba is in this movie, also … for almost a whole 60 seconds. 

The film is meant to be taken seriously, attempting to succeed not only as an action blockbuster, but the bearer of a ham-fisted humanitarian message. Regrettably for Penn and the rest of the talented cast, “The Gunman” straddles the awkward line between being too simple to be serious yet too serious to be fun.