‘The Gunman’: Cashing the check, paying the price

March 18, 2015

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Sean Penn is a global activist who puts his money – and, more important, his physical self – where others barely pay lip service.

His advocacy on behalf of the voiceless is stirring, but it obviously is also time-consuming and costly. So when a paycheck role like “The Gunman” comes along, you figure, well, the money supports bigger causes than Penn’s lifestyle.

Not that Penn needs sympathy for taking a role for the money. That role also included shooting locations in London, Paris and Madrid. Tough work but someone’s got to do it. 

It’s easy to understand the career math here: Penn is a two-time Oscar-winner who hasn’t made a significant movie in several years. At this point, he’s relatively unknown to a millennial audience, which was barely old enough to buy tickets for “Milk” in 2008, his last truly watchable film. So why not pair him with director Pierre Morel, who put new spin on the career of Liam Neeson with “Taken”? Sean Penn, welcome to the corps of aging action heroes.

Unfortunately, the script, while making broad political points, otherwise plays as by-the-numbers action fodder. Penn plays the aptly named Jim Terrier, first seen working for an NGO in the Congo almost a decade ago. Though he’s posing as someone there to help repair infrastructure, he’s actually a mercenary working for the country’s mining interests. When he becomes part of the mission to kill one of the country’s cabinet ministers, he accepts the proviso that, as the shooter, he must immediately leave the country and not come back.

Cut to a few years later. Terrier is, in fact, back in the Congo, this time doing actual humanitarian aid (as penance?), when he is the object of an assassination squad. He survives (old skills apparently never being that difficult to summon) and, learning that two of his other colleagues in that last mission have died mysteriously, he naturally becomes suspicious.

It’s obvious early on who has betrayed and targeted Terrier — to everyone except Terrier, unfortunately. Morel blends gun battles, hand-to-hand work and other action, using Penn’s chiseled 55-year-old physique as an implement of destruction. But the writing is wooden and Penn obviously knows it. There’s not much he can do, however, given the talkative nature of the rambling script.

The cast includes Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone and Jasmine Trinca. If Penn is helpless against exposition-heavy dialogue, what chance do they stand?

Morel is obviously trying for something slightly more elevated, like Anton Corbijn’s brutally underrated “The American.” But those action-genre reflexes get the best of him – and “The Gunman.”

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