Even though the film is based on an original novel, The Prone Guman by Jean-Patrick Manchette, there’s something overly familiar about the film version, now called simply The Gunman. It’s full of moments you swear you’ve seen before but at the same time it’s difficult to pin point exactly where or when.
It’s 2006. Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is a Special Force’s soldier on assignment in the Congo. He’s there along with a small group of other ex-military types, and as far as we can tell, he’s up to no good. After he’s given the order to assassinate the country’s Minister of Mining, which he does, Terrier is forced to flee the country, but not before he tells fellow trouble-making associate Felix (Javier Bardem) to look after the love of his life, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). “You have my word,” Felix replies.
It’s now eight years later and Terrier is doing his best to atone for some of the bad things he’s done. He’s returned to the Congo and is doing his bit for the country’s economy by assisting with the digging of its wells. Even though his killing days are long behind him, there are others who never forget. Terrier escapes an attack on his life by the skin of his teeth and knows he was specifically targeted. Not only that, but on the flight out of the Congo to London, he realizes that the other men who were on his team back in ’06 are also being targeted. By whom and why? “We did some bad things,” Terrier states.
To add an extra level of issue that the oh-so serious Jim Terrier has to deal with, he’s now cursed with a serious health problem. After a blackout episode and a series of brain scans, Terrier is told by the doctor that going forward, if he experiences any kind of trauma to the head, it’s over. Terrier needs to rest. “Take care of your mind,” the doctor prescribes.
Of course, Terrier doesn’t. Instead, he jets over to Spain and sets off a string of events involving the ex-military guys he used to work with, plenty of bad guys spraying bullets and a reunion with Annie who has now married Felix. “We need to forget that project,” Felix tells Terrier, referring to what they did in 2006. “It never happened.” But it did, and the issues won’t go away.
The Gunman is Sean Penn’s assignment through and through. He has a producing credit, a writer’s credit, and he stars. Think of it as a project intentionally designed to propel Penn’s film career back into the mainstream in the same way that Liam Neeson has attained an unexpected second wind in recent years. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, plus Penn certainly looks good at the running, jumping and shooting – his harder than rock, muscular physique is here on display at every opportunity and tends to be the film’s best special effect – but that intense quality he was always famous for holds a necessary likeability factor back.
Had Terrier displayed the slightest of humor to help us warm towards him – anything: a glance, a slight twinkle of the eye, even your basic smile – The Gunman might have entertained more than it does, but by having Terrier behave with the kind of intensity he would have employed for a character-driven indie drama, there’s nothing to warm to, plus it doesn’t help that what he and his military cohorts were up to back in 2006 was actually bad stuff. Even though you want the really bad guys to get their comeuppance, the supposed good guys aren’t all that good either. You never really root for anyone, except maybe the innocent bystander, Annie, who has no clue what her friends and lovers have been up to either today or back in 2006.
The violent action sequences are tight and well choreographed by director Pierre Morel while Flavio Maretinez Labiano’s widescreen cinematography fleshes out a richly, colorful, high-gloss look of an inviting continental Europe. But there’s also the feeling of something dated about the whole affair. Chases and their outcomes feel familiar, plus no one’s action surprises. Whatever you initially thought about a person’s character trait turns out to be exactly what you thought.
Plus, even though the end credits tell us that Barcelona is an anti-bullfighting city and has not had a bullfight since 2011, the climax of the film cuts between the violence between Terrier and the bad guys and the violence in a Barcelona bullring. The book upon which the movie is based has clearly made things a little more dated than we suspected.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)