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"THE GUNMAN"
(2015) (Sean Penn, Javier Bardem) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action: A mercenary sniper becomes the target of a hit squad himself years after pulling off an assassination that cost him his one great love.
PLOT:
Jim Terrier (SEAN PENN) works as part of a team of mercenaries hired by a multinational corporation to run black ops in the Congo back in 2006. He has fallen in love with Annie (JASMINE TRINCA), a beautiful health-care professional there to help those caught in the crossfire of a brutal civil war. When Jim is ordered by his bosses, Cox (MARK RYLANCE) and Felix (JAVIER BARDEM), to assassinate the local Minister of Mining, he does so with utmost sniper precision. But he must flee Africa to avoid detection, not even able to say goodbye to Annie.

Eight years later, Jim is the target of a hit squad himself and barely survives. He tracks down Cox, who is now a high-ranking executive at the company, to warn him that he might also be in danger. Jim then sets off for Barcelona to find Felix and discovers that he has married Annie and started a company himself. When another hit squad descends on Felix's Spanish villa, Jim and Annie are forced on the run and end up taking refuge with one of Jim's former espionage buddies, Stanley (RAY WINSTONE).

Before long, Jim is able to surmise that Cox is behind the hit orders in order to protect a major business deal going down for the company. Matters turn increasingly violent and deadly as Jim tries to keep Annie safe and stay one step ahead of a ruthless team of killers. At the same time, he is dealing with Post-Concussion Syndrome that brings on sudden and intense headaches and even blackouts. He begins to suspect that the only one he can trust is an enigmatic Interpol agent named DuPont (IDRIS ELBA).

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's a scene early in "The Gunman" where Sean Penn's tortured, tormented, troubled assassin has returned to the Congo in search of redemption after assassinating a high-ranking government official there years earlier. He's now part of a humanitarian organization, digging ditches and drilling for well water. And in his spare time, what does he do? He goes surfing off the African coast! And I'm sorry. Seeing him ride the waves, I just couldn't help but think of Penn's classic Jeff Spicoli character from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." I couldn't help it!

I know Penn would brain me for my pop-culture knowledge of all things early '80s overwhelming the very, very serious 21st century work he's doing here. Heck, it's been 30+ years since "Fast Times," and Penn has rarely returned to comedy, opting instead for increasingly very, very, VERY serious roles. But when he's out there on that board in this flick, trying to shake off that bloody sniper kill he made eight years earlier that plunged the Congo deeper into civil war and forced him to walk out on the love of his life ... all I kept hearing was the line "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine."

Penn has come a long, long way since Spicoli. He's been nominated for multiple Oscars, winning for "Mystic River" and "Milk." He's become one of Hollywood's most vocal and active humanitarian activists, regularly helping out in places like post-Katrina New Orleans and hurricane-devastated Haiti. And his epic love life has made him fodder for the tabloids, with marriages to Madonna and Robin Wright Penn and romances with Elizabeth McGovern and Charlize Theron.

"The Gunman" is his strangest effort yet. On one level, I applaud the guy for taking yet another left turn in his career. If you watch this flick, you'd think he'd been playing action roles for decades. This is ... ahem ... "taken" right from the Liam Neeson playbook. Penn is cast as Jim Terrier, a man with a particular set of skills who is forced on the run throughout Africa and Europe when he becomes the target of a hit squad. At the same time, Penn also goes the Sylvester Stallone "old guy" action route here. Neeson pretty much stays clothed and lumbers through his various old-guy action roles. Penn is like a totally buff beefcake here, with muscles out the wazoo (sorry, the word "wazoo" is used several times for some reason throughout "The Gunman"). Taylor Lautner doesn't take off his shirt as much as Penn sheds the tight button-ups here. There are even times in close-up and shadow where Penn's scowling, slightly weathered, slightly leathery mug makes him look like Stallone.

But Penn is still Penn, and he can't help trying to inject some social commentary into this film that gives it more weight than its B-movie structure can take. So, we get a lot of talk about how multinational corporations are trying to ruthlessly control the resources of the developing Third World and how they must be exposed and stopped. Penn also enlists some fantastic actors to come along for the ride here. also playing mercenary killers -- namely Oscar winner Javier Bardem, multiple Golden Globe nominee Idris Elba, the great Shakespearean thespian Mark Rylance, and character actor extraordinaire Ray Winstone. Three of these four are quite literally wasted here, and the fourth is barely in the film. In fact, he doesn't even appear in two of his four or five scenes. He's either a voice or just a hand flicking a cigarette lighter.

The focus stays squarely on Penn, and the action hero/anti-hero role just doesn't suit him as well as it does guys like Neeson, Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, etc. Actually, on the drive home from my screening of this flick, I couldn't help but chuckle at what a reworked old Steven Seagal flick this movie really is at its heart, especially those early efforts like "Above the Law" and "On Deadly Ground" where the chop-suey star tried to inject some political heft into his silly tales of bone snapping.

Ooh, and Penn -- ever in need of an acting challenge -- gives his character the added tic of suffering from Post-Concussion Syndrome, too. So, there are several instances in the film where Jim is put in jeopardy and this triggers hyper-violent headaches that causes Penn to fall to his knees, writhe on the ground in extreme pain, and generally over-act the Hell out of such scenes. It also doesn't help that he is paired with the beautiful Italian actress Jasmine Trinca as his love interest, who looks distractingly young opposite Penn. A quick check of her bio page shows that she was born just one year before "Fast Times" hit screens. Bogus!

And any serious intentions Penn had showing the evils of Big Business in the Third World are lost in a final act that gets increasingly bloody only to be followed by a curiously upbeat epilogue that lets the air out of the film's balloon entirely. Pierre Morel is still one of cinema's most competent action directors, following up his time behind the camera on the original "Taken" and Jason Statham's first two "Transporter" films. Here, he gives us one great sequence involving Jim having to re-jigger a trip wire while bad guys close in on him. It's quite a scene. I also liked a brief bit at a carnival where Jim instantly recognizes a soccer-mom-like tourist as an assassin and quickly disposes of her.

If the film had been more of a slow-burn, centered on mystery and intrigue, with bursts of hard-R action, all concerned might have really had something here. But as it is, it's pretty gnarly, dudes and dudettes ... and not in a righteous way. I give it a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed March 16, 2015 / Posted March 20, 2015


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