Co-written, co-produced, and starring two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn as an aging, redemption-seeking mercenary for a multinational private security company closely modeled on Blackwater (later Xe), The Gunman, a generic, globe-trotting action-thriller, has been positioned clearly as a late-career attempt to reinvent Penn, tortured intensity personified, into an action hero on par with the decade-older Liam Neeson, albeit a morally and ethically challenged action hero (it’s all about the greys, not the blacks and whites for Penn). With Neeson’s Taken key collaborator, cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel (From Paris With Love, District B13), taking the helm, The Gunman feels less like the provocative, thought-provoking expose of corporate and government corruption masked, of course, as escapist, popular entertainment and more like a cynical rehash of every Bourne-inspired retread or rehash released over the last decade to rapidly diminishing returns.
The Gunman starts promisingly enough, with taut, tense scenes set in the strife-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo nine years ago. An ex-Special Forces soldier turned private security contractor/mercenary, Jim Terrier (Penn) strikes up a romance with an Italian doctor, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), while his covetous handler, Felix (Javier Bardem), looks on in disapproval. Terrier’s brief idyll ends when his faceless superiors order him to assassinate the left-leaning, pro-nationalization Minister of Mines. Still following orders, Terrier flees the country, leaving Annie behind and more importantly, the Congo in an even more politically and economically unstable condition. The Gunman’s anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist position isn’t particularly controversial (at least it shouldn’t be), but any chance that The Gunman will delve deeper into the region’s complicated politics and the West’s often deleterious involvement in those politics quickly give way to generic action tropes.
For no apparent reason, The Gunman flashes forward eight years. Outwardly, Terrier remains unchanged – Penn takes several opportunities to show off his impressive conditioning, usually with a cigarette dangling from his mouth – but inwardly he’s changed (or we’re expected to believe he’s changed). He’s set aside his big money, private-security contracts for well-digging in the Congo, presumably the first step on a Redemption Tour™. When several, heavily armed men show up at a dig site looking for a “white man,” Terrier dispatches them with ruthless, Bourne-inspired efficiency before discovering and/or realizing someone, somewhere has targeted him for assassination. That sends Terrier to London to meet up with an old, out-of-shape associate, Stanley (Ray Winstone), a visit to a local hospital where he’s diagnosed with concussion-related brain trauma, then on to Barcelona, Spain and Gibraltar to renew old ties, specifically Felix, now supposedly working on the side of good (socially responsible international investments), Annie, now married to Felix, and the appropriately named Cox (Mark Rylance), a longtime mercenary turned front-office man.
Nothing that follows should come as a surprise to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the Bourne series. Rather than a rogue agency within the CIA, the villain this time is another profits-driven (thus, sociopathic) corporation attempting to protect current and future defense contracts, with a middleman simply following orders to eradicate Terrier before his guilty conscience gets the better of him. Morel livens up the formulaic plot with obligatory set pieces, some stronger or better than others, with the highlight coming around the midpoint as Terrier tries to defeat a team of assassins in a labyrinthine Spanish villa, but he repeatedly bogs down in drawn-out dialogue scenes or Terrier and Annie’s renewed romance. Annie never rises above pawn or object of desire, moving between Felix and Terrier to further the plot alone than her own wants or desires. Plot wise, her role feels like a throwback to earlier, less enlightened times. Maybe it was the source material, a French pulp novel written by the late Jean-Patrick Manchette. Maybe it was Penn the screenwriter and his focus on giving Penn the actor as much screen/dialogue time as possible. Whatever the reason, The Gunman feels like lightweight, disposable entertainment (because it is).