Release date: 20 March 2015
Running time: 115 min
Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba
In the first 15 minutes or so of The Gunman, white humanitarians and military types are seen doing dangerous work in the heart of the Congo; the seriousness of the issue heightened by newsreel footage overlayed with muffled screams and gunfire. You might be forgiven for thinking that this will be a political thriller a la John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener; this does feature such members of Hollywood’s liberal elite as Sean Penn and Javier Bardem after all. However any promise of this is dashed after the opening, which is revealed to be nothing more than an attempt to justify and contextualise the murderous rampage of an increasingly unhinged middle-aged man.
Sean Penn stars as Terrier, a sniper who assassinates a Congolese minister of mines as part of a top secret contract. Forced to flee the country, he reluctantly leaves behind his incredibly beautiful and much younger girlfriend (Trinca) at the mercy of the creepy but much more handsome Felix (Bardem), and stays in hiding for several years. After returning to the Congo in a more peaceful capacity, he becomes the target of a hit squad himself, and so revisits his old comrades one by one to find out who exactly wants him dead. Along the way he reunites with his aforementioned ex, gets diagnosed with PTSD-induced migranes, takes some poppers and punches a woman square in the face.
It’s not quite as downright farcical as director Pierre Morel’s previous films Taken or From Paris with Love, but in its own way it is more comical. Sean Penn cuts an absolutely ludicrous figure as a very serious man with a very serious rage problem, but with a rippling perma-tanned torso and a passion for surfing. He is so bulky, leathery and wooden that you’d be forgiven for thinking a leather armchair had suddenly sprouted arms and legs and started on a mass killing spree. He’s more Chuck Norris than Liam Neeson, seemingly intent on running around without a shirt for most of the running time to show us just how much he’s been lifting recently.
Joining him on his preposterously violent journey is Ray Winstone, who is on full ‘Bet 365’ mode as he regurgitates corny lines with his ramped up Mockney accent. Elsewhere Javier Bardem mildly channels his ‘eccentric hairdresser’ schtick from Skyfall, Mark Rylance phones it in and Idris Elba turns up for about 5 minutes to cryptically talk about tree houses on a park bench. It’s the sort of film that stages a set piece during a bull fight for its final showdown, because of course it does.
However for all its moments of unintentional hilarity, The Gunman is mostly a tiresome and dull affair with a ropey script and predictable plot contrivances. It’s not entirely incompetent; there are moments of genuine tension and the action is at times well-choreographed, but at its core it is tediously formulaic and far too serious for its utterly asinine moments. It would seem that despite all Penn’s time spent in the gym, Liam Neeson remains unchallenged as the current champion of the 50 plus actioner. Better don a leather jacket and a soft Irish brogue for next time.