By Jarrod Jones. Sean Penn, the actor/activist who netted his second Academy Award for portraying the martyred gay rights icon Harvey Milk, doesn’t seem like the kind of fella who would condescend himself for the generic action fare that’s waiting for other gentlemen his age. The Gunman, a film directed by Taken helmsman Pierre Morel, is definitely the sort of vanity project that would be more suited for Jason Statham, or maybe Liam Neeson, given the material: The film is just aware enough of our societal ills that it could be considered somewhat topical, but then again, it’s also just dumb enough that an actor of Neeson’s ubiquity could – and probably would – pass on it altogether. So how did Sean Penn get here?
It’s not too hard to comprehend, really. Just think of the Sean Penn who hammed his way through the lamentable Gangster Squad as Mickey Cohen, or the Penn who mired himself in the lurid murk of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, and then it all begins to make a little more sense. Sure, you think. Sean Penn would totally make a movie like this.
And why not? There’s plenty of money to be made in hopping around the globe while hundreds of people labor to make you look like a bonafide action star. And there’s a bit of pride that comes with it too: While new hunks like Chris Hemsworth and Henry Cavill cause all the kids to swoon these days, there are fewer and fewer opportunities popping up for men like Penn to impress audiences. (Outside of any further Expendables installments, of course.) So whether he’s snapping necks, making out with the film’s token female (Jasmine Trinca), or just surfing a righteous wave (because why not), Penn is rarely spotted in The Gunman wearing garb that would dare obscure his washboard abs.
At least Morel takes care to make Penn look as good as possible. The other burly, manly men don’t fare nearly as well: The film’s screenplay (which was co-written by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, and – yup – Sean Penn) gives pillars of masculinity like Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem, and Idris Elba – who, it should be noted, is hardly in the film at all – absolutely nothing to do but die, suffer, or otherwise shrink in the wake of Penn’s righteous justice. The film doesn’t provide a role for Sean Penn to inhabit, it constructs a showcase for Penn to strut his 54 year-old stuff. Everyone else either politely obliges, or writhes in pain until they disappear entirely. (Bardem, especially, has a hard time working through all of this, and it’s equally difficult to watch.)
Morel doesn’t just squander his rather impressive cast of tough guys, he damn near wastes their time as well. The film’s plot would be reasonably entertaining given polish, but the general conceit – where Penn’s American sniper attempts to live down the bad things American snipers do when they fulfill contracts in foreign lands – hardly has the steam to propel the film towards its clunky-ass third act. So they dress it up a bit: Bardem’s souse of a villain swipes Penn’s girl away from him in the film’s opening sequence, Penn develops a debilitating case of vertigo after years of catching shrapnel with his face (evoking shades of Kevin Costner’s 3 Days to Kill), and Morel splices devastating footage from the Democratic Republic of Congo to lend the film a ham-fisted subtext.
The Gunman has something to say – the socially-minded presence of Penn demands it – but any message it attempts to screech at you is muddied by Morel’s insistence on a perpetually growing body count. You can’t blame a director for sticking with what he’s good at, and the film’s action sequences do have a spark to them, but when it comes time for Morel to meet his obligation in making sense of all this, the vital rhythm is lost completely. (Watching former Bond villain Bardem trade nonsensical barbs with a grunty Penn is a shame all on its own.) And at 115 minutes, the film’s tired-ass three act structure puts the audience through a wringer of such aching familiarity, the seconds slow to a bitter crawl. You simply can’t keep time without rhythm.