In 2008, the world saw Liam Neeson be met with unprecedented success and an utter transformation as an action hero with the release of Taken. This led to resurgence in an era that film critic Charlie Lynne would dub as ‘Geriaction’ films. 8 years on and many of Hollywood’s big actors were to follow his lead – Denzel Washington’s recent The Equalizer, Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, the Expendables franchise, and even comedy actor Jim Carrey in Kick-Ass 2. Sean Penn, an anti-gun activist and humanitarian aid worker, has teamed up with Taken director Pierre Morel to attempt to merge the geriaction formula with international politics. The result is a disappointment at best.
The Gunman begins with a prologue set in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here we first meet Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), his doctor girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), and his colleague Felix (Javier Bardem), whom unsubtly shows he too likes Annie. Felix, Terrier, Cox (Mark Rylance) are part of a security task force for mining operations, but are also willing to do unscrupulous mercenary hitmen operatives for a shadowy organization. This particular one is to take out DRC’s Minister of mining, which leads to major civil unrest and Terrier must flee.
Seven years on and everyone has ventured in different directions with only Terrier still in DRC carrying out humanitarian aid work. Upon one mining excavation a number of rebels burst into the village looking for him. After Terrier manages to fend them off, he notices there is a connection between these rebels and the assassination he committed years ago. Terrier flees to Europe to warn Cox and Felix, residing in London and Barcelona respectively, and receives assistance from hitman tutor Stanley (Ray Winstone). What soon unfolds is a web of lies, deceit, cover-ups, and a few arse-kicking moments for good measure.
While we are treated to plenty of nice location shots, notably the romanticized images of Barcelona, the film cannot be saved by its ill-treatment of the genre it wishes to emulate. The charm of other geriaction films is the self-aware acknowledgement this is an escapist medium. These films generally aim at poking fun at the star persona that is attached to it. If a film decides to do it straight, much like Tom Cruise films, then it is done so in a fantastical setting. Most importantly, it keeps politics out. What this film attempts to do is ignore those principles and aim to merge the formula with politics, which, unfortunately, results in a preachy rhetoric the audience could do without. Right at the end there is a news broadcast facing towards the audience and spells out the film’s political message, which is both lazy and campy.
It is clear that the political plot thread, which, quite frankly, feels at times tacked-on, is to coincide with Penn’s public persona (as he is also credited as producer for this film), which becomes equally problematic. The escapist fun ceases as it’s apparent this is a specifically self-indulgent Sean Penn movie that wishes not to poke fun at his public persona. In fact, we are treated to very little intentional humour of any kind throughout. The closest is an 80s-style maverick hijinks early on when Terrier surf-boards, where the audience gets a nice good look at Penn’s impeccable physique (which makes regular comebacks throughout the film), only to discover that the act of the leaving the site outside of specified hours is against protocol. This scene is not only out of sync with the rest of the narrative, but it also cements the notion this is a self-indulgent Sean Penn film.
As one expects from a Morel film, the action scenes are edited to incomprehension. However, if one is able to bypass this hindrance, then it can offer some thrills. The campy showdown at the bullfighting ring in Barcelona (the closing credits will remind audiences it has been banned in the city since 2011) heavily utilizes the twisty corridors and the cluttered auditorium for an entertaining climax. The shoot-out at Felix’s summer home also highlights the imagination of Morel’s action set pieces. It is still a shame that much of it will be lost through the overabundance of shots and edits.
The film’s biggest crime is in its treatment of the talented cast. Penn is a righteous hunk; Bardem is reduced to a dreary, dead-eyed drunk; Winstone is a cockney only to blindly serve Penn; Trinca’s only role is to serve as the love interest (no agency here, people); Idris Elba, as an Interpol agent, is only given two scenes, and one of which is spoken entirely on “treehouses” in metaphors. This metaphor scene is only carried by its unintentional hilarity (nowhere else in the narrative do they speak extensively in this manner) and Elba’s on-screen charisma. In short, the cast serves the plot, and Penn, when it is convenient. Beyond these measures they lack depth or entertaining intrigue that could help elevate this fairly humdrum movie.
The Gunman tries to follow Taken’s footsteps in country-hopping around Europe to defeat villains, but experiments with a political subplot. The two don’t merge and results in a jarring film viewing experience. Its camp moments and action sequences cannot save this film from a dull, humourless film that takes itself far too seriously. It is only the charm of the cast prevents this from becoming a complete disaster (at a stretch).