Middle-age crisis in Africa
Often feeling like equal parts a Sean Penn political statement and an ego-centric excuse to show off his ripped new physique, this latest actioner tries, but largely fails, to be different, and wastes a great cast along the way.With Sean Penn desperate to reinvent himself in the same manner as Costner, Travolta and Guy Pearce – a trick only Neeson managed to pull off – this has once-inventive, now-derivative writer/director/producer Luc Besson’s fingerprints all over it, even though he’s nowhere to be found in the credits. All of the ageing stars above turned to Besson to give them a Taken, and now it’s Penn’s turn. Wielding a tremendous cast – far better than a film like this arguably deserves – and boasting a politically-minded premise involving NGOs and the wartorn Congo (Penn co-wrote the script), the film clearly desperately wants to be stand out from the crowd. It also has an unusually good pedigree in that it originally emanated from an ’81 novel called The Prone Gunman (as opposed to coming from Besson’s bowel movements). Unfortunately, despite mostly avoiding the save-the-damsel-in-distress formula previously established in almost all of its predecessors, the globe-trotting narrative often hangs on a thread, painting in barefaced exposition and clunky dialogue that seems patently driven merely to get you to the next location.Penn runs/flies/drives from one person/place to the next, often for little reason other than to get a few more aerial shots in, and the political sentiment seems distinctly out of place, with quality actors from Javier Bardem to Idris Elba – to Penn himself – struggling to survive with their dignities intact. Still, just as you wouldn’t really go into a Liam Neeson film to see Ed Harris act, you don’t go and see a Pierre Morel film called The Gunman to see much more than what it says in the title, and for that, we really only need Penn to drop his political stance and take up a fighting stance instead, something which he does with surprising ease. There’s a refreshingly brutal edge to many of the set-pieces that leaves the PG-13 brethren in the dust and whilst there are as many stupid moments as there are ingenious ones (every time Penn has an opportunity to shoot an unaware armed assailant, he always resorts to some kind of elaborate distraction first, whether it be flashbangs or bulls), The Gunman doesn’t have that many issues in the action department; it’s more problematic when it comes to the rest of the glue that’s supposed to hold it together.
The Gunman sports a largely impressive 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation framed in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
Detail is strong throughout, with excellent close-ups and striking longer shots that make the most of the various exotic locales. Skin details remain well-observed, with Penn’s craggy, weathered but unquestionably buff new look showcased with precision, for good and bad. The colour scheme also makes the most of the various locales, with healthy – but eminently heavily tanned – skintones prevalent throughout, and rich green scenery, pleasing blue skies, and strong deep blacks allowing for impressive shadow detail. Digital defects are largely non-existent, with only a hint of banding keeping this from being reference perfection, and the result still resoundingly demo-worthy.
Sound QualityThe Blu-ray of The Gunman includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that can be listened to in 5.1, 7.1 or various Atmos configurations.
Cas Harlow reviewed the audio using a standard 5.1-channel setup - Dialogue remains clearly and coherently disseminated across the fronts and centre channels, whilst effects are myriad, boasting both precision and potency, and lighting up the surround array. Gun fights provide thunderous excitement, as bullets crack across the soundscape, and explosions rumble underfoot. Hand-to-hand combat is brutal and high-impact, whilst the background atmosphere to bullfights and bustling streets provide engulfing ambience. The score is effective enough, driving a pervasive undercurrent which forms the backbone to the aural side of things, and overall this is demo material, even utilising merely the core elements.
Whilst not the best Atmos track we have heard, it still makes effective use of the additional channels.
Steve Withers reviewed the audio using a 7.2.4-channel Dolby Atmos setup - Whilst not one of the most impressive Dolby Atmos soundtracks we have heard to date, The Gunman still makes effective use of the additional channels when needed. There are numerous scenes that take place in the Congo and here the addition of overhead speakers allows for a subtle improvement in the sense of atmosphere and spatial awareness. Obviously when the action scenes kick off the sound mix roars into life, with bullets and explosions flying around the room. However the dialogue always remains clear and anchored at the front, the score is effectively rendered and the low frequency channel is used to effectively support the rest of the soundtrack. This not only applies to gunshots and explosions but also the brutal hand-to-hand combat, with the subwoofer adding a visceral impact to the punches. The Atmos track includes the usual overhead flybys but is perhaps most effectively used when Sean Penn's character suffers his blackouts from a long-term head trauma. The sound design in these scenes really sells the character's sense of disorientation and places you right inside his head. So overall, whilst The Gunman's Dolby Atmos soundtrack isn't the best we've heard, it's still well implemented and adds to the viewing experience.
ExtrasBeating out the purportedly barebones US counterpart from Universal, Studiocanal's UK release sports a few nice extras including no less than four short but decent enough featurettes, looking at the action sequences, the Krav Maga hand-to-hand-combat, the original book, and the story; and a further three interviews, with director Pierre Morel and actors Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance on-hand to talk about their work on this production.
The Gunman’s Zavvi Exclusive Steelbook release furthers the gap between this and the barebones US package with a nice little steel case.
Beyond just the extras featured, there’s a lot of merit to picking up the steelbook variation, which sports some of the better artwork used for the film, and which, whilst not brimming with embossing, debossing or any distinct glossy sheen, is still a nice-looking effort which befits the movie and should please most fans looking for more than just the amray alternative.
Blu-ray Steelbook VerdictWhat they really needed to do was strip the film down to a lean 90 minute runtime, drop a couple of unnecessary location-changing sequences, and tone down the more overt political sentiments. This just isn’t that kind of film, and unfortunately the jarring political backdrop undermines some of the more interesting – and appropriate – ideas that they ineffectively try and develop (post-concussion trauma). The Gunman should satisfy the Taken/Non-Stop crowd to a certain extent – it’s leagues ahead of Taken 2 – but it’s hard to escape the feeling of wasted ingredients, misguided ideas, and just plain shoddy filmmaking around the edges, even if nobody’s ever going to pick a fight with Sean Penn ever again.
The Gunman is perfectly engaging stuff if you ignore the fact that it could have been much better; and the steelbook Blu-ray package is a nice fit.
Fans should certainly consider the UK release a superior package, not least because of superior extras but also an exclusive steelbook variant. Outstanding video and audio - including a Dolby Atmos soundtrack - really seal the deal, and those who enjoyed the movie shouldn’t hesitate in adding this release of The Gunman to their collection.
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