Monday, March 23, 2015

In Theaters: THE GUNMAN (2015)

(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.

THE GUNMAN opens in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, where Jim Terrier (Penn) is among the contractors working security for an NGO humanitarian effort to provide medical aid and construct an airstrip. Terrier's doctor girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) is part of the effort, but she doesn't know about the side job that Terrier and his mercenary buddies Cox (Mark Rylance) and Felix (Javier Bardem) have: to coordinate the assassination of the Congo's Minister of Mining at the behest of a multinational corporation that looks to face obstacles and lose profits if he remains in his present position. Terrier ends up being the triggerman, and flees to Europe after the job is done. Eight years later, he's back in the Congo, out of the assassination game and devoting himself full-time to aid work when three killers show up on a job site to take him out. Terrier's instinctive kill skills take over and he survives the attempt on his life and heads to London to warn Cox, now an executive with the very company that once hired them as killers, that he may be next. Terrier makes his way to Barcelona to meet up with Felix, who's now married to Annie. As Terrier and Annie's passion reignites, the attempts on his life continue, and it doesn't take long for him to realize that one of his old cohorts--Felix, Cox, or perhaps even his gregarious buddy Stanley (Ray Winstone), may be the party trying to orchestrate his murder.

Because of Morel's involvement and Penn's age, comparisons to TAKEN are inevitable, but those are surface, coincidental parallels. Penn has designed a star action vehicle to, in part, soapbox his own concerns--not always successfully, mind you--but he doesn't overplay it and turn it into a public service announcement with an overabundance of blood squibs. The action sequences are well-choreographed, the violence and bloodshed convincingly nasty, and Penn's performance, criticized by many as glum and self-serious, suits the story and the surroundings, especially in the way he's suffering from brain trauma and is bogged down by migraines and vomiting spells after some especially hard-hitting showdowns. This is not a wisecracking hero he's playing--he's a damaged guy with regrets who's starting to feel his age. Penn gets some sturdy support from the always-welcome Winstone and Bardem, and Tony-winning Shakespearean stage great Rylance (ANGELS AND INSECTS, INTIMACY) makes a rare appearance in a commercial genre film, and judging from his enjoyably hammy performance, seems to have taken the opportunity to reinvent himself as Richard Harris. Idris Elba turns up 80 minutes in for a glorified cameo as an Interpol agent who tells a drawn-out story with a treehouse metaphor. THE GUNMAN starts stumbling and bumbling on its way to a happy ending and it's probably a film best suited for a low-risk stream on Netflix. Nevertheless, Penn proves he does have potential for a Neeson-style action rebirth if he can maybe just lighten up a little and leave the issues and the statement-making out of it and just let a good action movie be a good action movie.

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