Dave White
The Gunman Review

Dave's Rating:

2.0

At Close Range

Pierre Morel wants to make a serious film. He already directed District B13, Taken, and From Paris With Love, which more than suggests that he knows how to tackle and subdue the commercial action genre. But in The Gunman, the pervasive feeling is of great effort being exerted in the direction of something more. You can probably thank or blame Sean Penn for that.

As producer, star, and co-screenwriter (along with Don MacPherson and Pete Travis, adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel), this is as much Penn's film as Morel's, and the actor knows what he wants: a meaningful reason to step into the role of aging action star. Liam Neeson is the current President of This. Denzel Washington's done it. So has Kevin Costner. Every actor in The Expendables series would like his or her own solo project. So now, as the youngest of that roster, it's Penn's shot, so to speak, provided it can be about something. But how many somethings is too much?

Penn is Jim Terrier, a symbolically-named man in a volatile region of Congo in 2006. Terrier has a particular set of skills, which he's employed to use for very dark purposes, and they amplify an already chaotic humanitarian nightmare. Fast-forward eight years. He's now an aide worker, having left behind his former life, but someone is trying to kill him anyway, so he travels the globe, gathering information from his former associates (Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance). He'll have to kill one more time, or be killed himself.

Another lurking threat: plaque on the brain. Terrier's violent resume has wreaked havoc on his body, a series of blows resulting in cumulative head trauma. He's being attacked from within and without, and he knows he's earned all of it.

It's a role tailored to Penn, who, along with Morel, are determined to fuse the straightforward action movie with weary noir commentary about the personal and global costs of violence, especially its calculated use for corporate greed.

But there's a disconnect in this earnest narrative, and it shows. When he gives himself a chance to be thoughtful, Morel will shoot Penn from a distance, framing the actor inside immovable boundaries, such as in one scene where a tiny Terrier is boxed inside the "walls" of foregrounded metal sculpture. But the demands of action cinema usually mean that Penn must remain a moving target that the camera can barely keep up with. Somebody has to do the killing and it has to get done quickly; there's not much time for art.

Penn, for his part, works the angles, grimacing under the weight of condemnation that unseen forces have heaped upon him. He's betrayed by his own body, and by former comrades, the latter having retreated into positions of respectability. He grunts and strains and works hard against all of it, and if you don't believe the story his anguished face is telling, then his gym-blasted body will do the rest of the talking.

The Gunman, then, is a movie that can't decide if it's going to be about the sins of the past and how their consequences reverberate, the shifting nature of moral identity, or the shoving of gnarly spikes into the necks of really bad dudes. It could have it all, if only it had the nerve to be as dark as it should be. But it hedges its bets and backs away slowly from the more staggering implications of its characters' actions. It throws up grim glimpses of inhumanity, disingenuously symbolic bullfights that suggest Penn as victim when he clearly is not, a defeatist vision of corporate intervention in humanitarian strife, and lots of really cool fighting and chasing sequences. But it won't commit to going there, not all the way, at least, even up to and including its final shot. So in the end its meaning is really no meaning at all.

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