The deceivingly good cast may make you venture out to see The Gunman, but try to resist the urge. Sean Penn stars in the lead role, as well as signing off as a co-writer and a producer, with a littany of lauded actors such as Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone (OK, a minor indicator of what could come), and even Mark Rylance, who makes a disorienting move from acclaimed thespian performances to treading the boards of a seriously staid thriller. Moving swiftly onwards, The Gunman comes from director Pierre Morel, the man behind District B13, which hit all the marks of a knockout urban thriller advocating for something more than a quick fix of action. He also gave us the blockbuster hit Taken.
At the beginning of the film, having been alerted that we are based in The Democratic Republic of Congo – where a post-colonialisation lapse into political unrest type of shit is going down, we are introduced to Jim Terrier (Sean Penn). I already don’t like where this is going… He enters a bar filled with feverish Westerners, making his way over to his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). They stare goofy eyed at one another, draped over each other, while everyone else around them discusses serious matters for a solid ten minutes. It’s pretty clear that at some point Annie will be bundled into a van and kidnapped by mercenaries working on behalf of some evil white guy who has a history with Terrier. It’s just a given. Call it intuition, but the alarm bells go off once again when Felix (Javiar Bardem) looks at Annie like he wants to lick her face. He will, in the next two hours, try to creepily possess her. Terrier is the good guy here, that only leaves the face licker creep role for you Bardem, with those lustful eyes.
The severly backward portrayal of women in The Gunman typifies the bleakest forms of this genre. Anna has a serious predilection for mewling at men to rescue her. It is just one of the hypocrises within the film. Sickly-sweet couple, Jim and Anna provide some serious “don’t do this at home” tips. Wrapping yourself in a wet blanket does not help as much as Jim makes out if you need to run through fire. You would at least partially melt. Building wells in the Congo does not cancel out assassinating the mining minister of the Congo either, Jim. Surfing on the beach outside your closed compound doesn’t make you an enviable rebel. And just in case Penn hadn’t sold us on his ‘full package’ self-promoting image as a humanitarian with a six pack, we get to see him at least a dozen more times than necessary with his shirt off. The highlight being the unintentional hilarity of Penn in a bullet proof vest with no shirt underneath. I think we were meant to get goosebumps. I nearly got sick.
From one watch (please, no more) the exacerbatingly erratic plot suggests Penn has a pious affront to making just a run-of-the-mill action film, and so has superimposed humanitarian crises on the script. How ill fitting when you consider all he ends up with is a run-of-the-mill action with prentions. It is a film that plausibly began with the best intentions in the world – to focus our attention on the failed relief work system in developing countries – but was muddled right from its conception in its approach.
Nobody could deny Sean Penn is a leading actor, powerful director and an admirable human rights activist but that isn’t conveyed at all in The Gunman. With this film, Penn has slapped together a convoluted and empty plot that rests on its falsly geopolitical front. It defies us not to rate it good, resting on the defence that if we don’t like it we are too trivial, too shallow. In reality, it is not us that’s the problem, it’s the convoluted plot which, if we ever managed to extricate, would only reveal the film’s unbound vacuity. In cinemas 20 March 2015. Watch the trailer here.