WITH a career full of intense, left of centre performances, The Gunman sees Penn take an unusual turn, picking up the mantle of a middle-aged action hero.
In much the same vein as Taken, The Gunman bases itself around that popular masculine myth wherein an ageing and dormant killing machine has a long buried murky past that’s suddenly reactivated.
Jim Terrier is the ex-killing machine in question. Terrier’s murky past involves some assassination and espionage in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a mission which caused him to go on the run, abandoning his colleagues and love interest, Annie (Jasmine Trinca).
Fast forward eight years, and Terrier is back in the DRC, this time with clean hands as part of a humanitarian mission. An attempt on his life makes him realise his past will continue to haunt him.
We then zip between Africa, London, and Barcelona as Terrier tries to sniff out exactly who is trying to take him out …
Despite an exceptionally impressive supporting cast (Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance) there’s more ham and cheese on display here than a well-stocked deli – and that includes Penn too.
Sometimes, earnest attempts to bring more depth to a role can backfire and simply highlight the flimsiness of the affair.
As director, Pierre Morel is just as guilty of this. Interspersing the film with actual footage of violence and poverty in the DRC, and with some subversive narrative undertones that point out the shady connections between businesses and governments, The Gunman tries at several points to escape its action film pigeon hole.
The attempts remain unconvincing – a thin cerebral veneer cannot hide the fact that it is all muscle underneath.
Perhaps the epitome of this is Terrier’s struggle with PTSD – a contrived plot device that effectively means a propensity for the camera to go blurry and cause him to drop his gun at just about every crucial moment.
It is quite unfortunate that the film takes itself so seriously because beneath the austere exterior there is some exciting action.
Penn may overplay his stern face, but there is no denying he is more than physically capable of delivering the action hero role.
In the moments when it does come to life, the set pieces in The Gunman are vibrant, violent, and bone-shatteringly visceral.
A little of the genre-awareness that is lacking throughout creeps in at the film’s finale, where Morel sets up a gloriously OTT face-off in a bullring.
Aside from providing a satisfying pay-off, it displays an indulgent and cartoonish attitude to the action that, had it been embraced throughout, would have undoubtedly made for a much stronger film.
It’s enjoyable on some level, but The Gunman provides more misses than hits.