The Gunman Review
Mid-life crisis in Africa
Feeling like equal parts Sean Penn political statement and 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 that John Travolta, Guy Pearce and Kevin Costner have all done – but that only the forerunner Liam Neeson actually managed to successfully 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 listed above turned to Besson to do for them what he did for Liam Neeson, and now it’s Penn’s turn. But, whilst not overt, perhaps his involvement is inherited this time; he scribbled the script for so many of these damn stupid actioners that the pattern is easy to repeat – and particularly so for the man who helped Besson start this whole production line of paint-by-numbers flicks: Taken’s director, Pierre Morel.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, The Gunman clearly desperately wants to stand out from the crowd. It also has an unusually good pedigree in that it originally emanated from an 1981 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.
The story involves a beleaguered old private contractor, whose past demons and deadly acts come back to haunt him almost a decade later, and compel him to take an international trip down memory lane, looking up all of his old colleagues to find out who’s coming for him. From a grizzled Mark Rylance (who gets off to a bad start with several scenes that feel like he’s reading from a script) to a drunken Javier Bardem (whose sub-plot involving a forced love triangle is told in painfully contrived short-hand, and brought to an anti-climactic shuddering halt by the end of the first act), to Ray Winstone, who appears to be the only one at ease with his character, Penn runs/flies/drives from one person/place to the next often for little reason other than to get in a few more aerial shots. Perhaps the worst to suffer from the wasted characterisations, though, is Idris Elba, who really must have needed the paycheque – either that or his scenes simply didn’t make the final cut.
Idris Elba rocks up for 2 minutes in the third act to roll a cigarette that looks suspiciously like a joint and talk about treehouses.
Still, just as you wouldn’t really go into a (modern) 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 (he apparently co-wrote the script, and it shows) and take up a fighting stance instead, something which he does with surprising ease. Perhaps we didn’t need a surfing sequence to hammer the point home about his new pure muscle physique, but it clearly helps make the action sequences more convincing, with a refreshingly brutal edge to many of the set-pieces that leaves the PG-13 brethren that plague this particular sub-genre in the dust. Yes, there are as many stupid moments are there are ingenious action scenes (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), but The Gunman doesn’t have that many issues in the action department; it’s more problem-stricken when it comes to the rest of the glue that’s supposed to hold it together.
Indeed, what 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 again.
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