(France/Spain/UK/US - 2015)
Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Don Macpherson, Pete Travis and Sean Penn. Cast: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca, Peter Franzen, Sir Billy Billingham, Ade Oyefaso, Rachel Lascar, Sarah Moyle. (R, 115 mins)
Very loosely based on Jean-Patrick Manchette's 1981 novel The Prone Gunman, THE GUNMAN would appear, on the surface, to be 54-year-old Sean Penn's blatant attempt to get a head start hitching a ride on the post-TAKEN, Liam Neeson "aging action star" bandwagon. It even goes so far as to have TAKEN director and former Luc Besson protege Pierre Morel at the helm. Penn doing a straight-up action genre piece is a change of pace for the two-time Oscar-winner, but THE GUNMAN isn't really a TAKEN knockoff. It's more in line with last year's Pierce Brosnan actioner THE NOVEMBER MAN--a gritty, serious action thriller with a certain 1970s throwback feel to it. And with its globe-trotting locales and its protagonist being a hunted man, with filming taking place in London, Barcelona, Gibraltar, and Cape Town, it has more in common with the BOURNE movies than TAKEN. Co-producer Penn obviously had a significant hand in the somewhat disjointed script, sharing credit with journeyman script doctor Don Macpherson (his first big-screen writing credit since 1998's disastrous THE AVENGERS) and DREDD director Pete Travis, and it's pretty clear what the other guys wrote and what Penn contributed. Some have called THE GUNMAN a vanity project with Penn showing off his newly-ripped physique and shoehorning his humanitarian concerns into the story, but he mostly keeps the self-indulgence in check, at least until a whimper of an ending that's somewhat reminiscent--though not nearly as egregiously cumbersome--as Steven Seagal's environmental lecture and slide show presentation at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND. But until then, THE GUNMAN is mostly solid and diverting, similar in many ways to a 1970s conspiracy thriller with a vivid European vibe. The action scenes are coherently staged, the violence is brutal and often shocking, and a game cast of overqualified actors shine in well-written character parts, giving substance to what's essentially upscale DTV fare. THE GUNMAN is by no means a great movie, and perhaps Penn was given too much leeway to tailor it to himself, but it's nowhere near the catastrophe that the reviews and the opening weekend box office would indicate.