In 2008, Taken famously reinvented Liam Neeson as an ageing action hero leading to a string of successful similar movies for the actor. While a fair amount of the credit for that film’s popularity lays with the then-novel performance of its star, it surprisingly hasn’t led to much for the man who actually directed the film; Frenchman Pierre Morel.
Since Taken he’s only made the instantly forgettable From Paris with Love and saw himself replaced by inferior Luc Besson protégé Olivier Megaton for the lacklustre Taken sequels. Of course Taken also proved peculiarly influential, with a host of middle aged stars known mostly for dramatic work accepting no-nonsense action leads in its wake with little-to-moderate success. The latest such actor to ape Neeson’s unlikely career re-invention is Sean Penn (also a co-writer and producer), and, perhaps as a statement of intent, he’s roped in Morel to assist him.
Despite this pedigree The Gunman actually begins looking to be a quite different type of movie; opeining with a montage of news footage about the dire situation in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006. We meet Penn’s character Jim and his band of co-workers there. What exactly they do isn’t entirely clear, at first they look to be some kind of security for aid workers but they soon are engaged in a much more significant piece of political espionage, leading to Penn’s departure from the team and the country.
Fast forward eight years and Penn is back in DR Congo actually as an aid worker, but finds himself targeted by some local militants who may or may not know what he did in the past. He quickly jets off out of Africa to find his old co-workers in Europe.
At this point The Gunman apparently ceases to care about the African conflict of its initial focus, as Penn’s real motivator is shown to be Annie, the gorgeous Italian doctor (20 years his junior (Jasmine Trinca) that he had to leave behind when he originally departed. The film then morphs into a very standard action thriller as Penn tracks down his allies one-by-one across several European locations.
Along the way there are your expected revelations, double-crosses and frequent fight scenes as Jim struggles to protect Annie against a hoard of goons but nothing to hold much interest. Perhaps most surprisingly is that the action scenes are so uninventive; Morel’s only stand-out moment in that department is Penn’s one-on-two fight sequence that occurs at the beginning when he’s still in Africa. I’ll give the film a smidgeon of credit for squeezing one unexpected departure from its otherwise formulaic narrative around the mid-point but it’s tough to find much more to praise.
The Gunman packs out its unremarkable supporting roles with a surprisingly talented roster of actors. Javier Bardem is there for a good chunk as an unsubtle romantic rival for Annie’s affections, while Ray Winstone and acclaimed stage veteran Mark Rylance also make significant appearances as former comrades. What drove them to such one-note roles is rather baffling, but none more so than Idris Elba, who makes a sudden late appearance for a couple of scenes in a very minor part.
The biggest problem with The Gunman is that it soon becomes relentlessly dull, and a lot of this has to do with how seriously it takes itself. After all but disposing with its real-world political sub-text in act 2, it apparently wants to be an ass-kicking action fest but lacks any of the knowing humour and occasional absurdity that comes with such a movie. A lot of this stems from Penn himself; he’s clearly hit the gym hard to effectively sell himself as an action hero but seems totally resistant to the notion of having any fun with such a role. This recurring issue is most exemplified when late in the film, a bad guy is given an outrageous comedy death scene that would have felt right at home in an eighties-era action movie. It feels like Penn should utter a Schwarzenegger-esque quip afterwards but instead collapses in an exasperated heap leaving the set-piece seeming totally out of place.
The Gunman ultimately comes across as an attempted blend of Taken-style action movie and Bourne-style spy movie with a conflicted character study of a man seeking redemption at the centre plus a desire to highlight real-world plight. Unfortunately its sloppy mix of these elements never gels and the film soon devolves into a sluggish, humourless bore.