'The Gunman': What the Critics Are Saying

Sean Penn is a mercenary fighting to survive against a dangerous hit squad in the Congo.

In The Gunman, Sean Penn plays the titular gunman fighting for his life against a team of dangerous hit men when he returns to the Congo years after assassinating the country's mining minister for a foreign mining company. 

The action thriller is directed by Pierre Morel (who helmed the original Taken and Transporter films) and is based on the novel The Prone Gunman by fellow Frenchman Jean-Patrick Manchette. Idris ElbaJavier Bardem and Ray Winstone also star.

The film, which is the first starring vehicle for Penn since 2013's box office dud Gangster Squad, isn't projected to break $10 million at the box office. The R-rated shoot-em-up is likely to finish under Insurgent, the second film in the Divergent series, and Cinderella, which looks to hold a strong position in its second week at the box office. 

Read what top critics are saying about The Gunman:

The Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin says the film "feels like a vanity project designed to do for Penn's bankability, Africa, Spain and mercenaries what the Taken franchise did for Liam Neeson, Paris and Albanian gangsters." The "sales should be solid on the back of a vigorous marketing campaign, but Penn is unlikely to have the same appeal as Neeson for the target demographic." Despite the film's setting, "Ade Oyefeso [is] one of the only two black actors who has more than three lines here, despite the amount of time spent in Africa." Although “the cast's natural charisma and talent is sufficient to maintain interest in the thinly written material” it’s “clear that the romance is of secondary interest to the filmmakers, and ultimately [Jasmine Trinca]'s merely a pawn in a game of macho action-movie chess.”

The film “becomes even more of a slog once [Penn] and [Trinca] start schlepping around Spain on the lam, visiting Gibraltar for the big, entirely predictable reveal as to who is the real villain and then back to Barcelona for a climactic showdown at a bullfighting ring (despite the fact that Catalonia banned the sport in 2012). But legal history be damned; it's a picturesque setting for a chase sequence with all those crowds, corridors and dangerous livestock.” At some point, “Elba lurches into view as an Interpol agent who wants to help [Penn], although the need for discretion is apparently so great he has to couch his offer of assistance in a torturous, overextended metaphor about building a treehouse that seems so coy and circumlocutory you'd think they'd set up the rendezvous through Grindr. The scene tips the movie into camp, and by the end it becomes something of a giggle-fest, surely not the intended aim of the filmmakers.”

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday gives the film one out of four stars, writing, "At least for an hour or so, The Gunman looks like it might be pretty good — a well-made, politically aware action thriller that makes up for its generic plotting with an outstanding cast and sharp, keenly observed atmospherics. Then it all just goes kerblooey and nobody gets out unscathed." Penn “takes every opportunity he can to strip down ... the better to show off an impressively buff torso" and "always puts him[self] on the side of the angels, even when bullets fly, fists crack, knives impale and bombs explode with promiscuous abandon." Although the film “looks terrific, hopping the globe from the Democratic Republic of Congo (played by South Africa) to Gibraltar to Barcelona,” the “filmmakers try mightily for thrills and metaphorical weight but fail on a scale commensurate with the setting.”

Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune adds an extra star, but notes the movie “lacks the clean, vengeful lines of Taken, and Penn's game isn't weary gravity; it's boiling-kettle-of-rage, which is a tougher sit. The Penn character goes by the name Jim Terrier (Jim Corgi probably didn't sound tough enough), whose main job is in private security but whose sideline is killing for a fee." The villains “never hit, and our anguished hero never misses.” The film’s hypocrisy lies in “the necessary frictions between the hero's reluctance to slaughter (most of all, Penn's character wants to provide clean water to impoverished villages) and the blood-spilling requirements of the plot." It’s “increasingly numbing in the carnage department" and "compared with someone like Neeson, Penn's avenging angel is a less relatable fellow."

New York Daily News' Joe Neumaier feels that “Penn’s bad side makes for good action-drama” and “there’s a grubby, redemptive quality that makes this tough-minded flick feel like the son of Serpico and Salvador.” Director Morel “shows an admirable level of restraint. Though the fist-fights are frenetic, things are grounded in reality. Every action brings a reaction.” It is a “movie of its day. The action hero stars of the moment are either old men or young women, a dynamic no doubt familiar to the power brokers in Hollywood. Penn may seem an odd fit, but as an actor, he’s on target.”

The New York Observer's Rex Reed pans the film as “meat-headed incoherence, a badly written, poorly directed and confusingly acted muddle of global nonsense, The Gunman is another ill-conceived entry in the latest dopey trend of middle-aged men blowing up stuff in an attempt to carve off a piece of the macho action market deserted years ago by Robert Mitchum and now newly dominated by Neeson.” Penn’s “skintight jeans and bulging biceps cannot camouflage the age lines or dewlaps." Jobs may be "scarce after a certain age, but a fine actor appearing in this kind of bilge is a real blow. Worse still is watching Bardem struggle to bring some life to a character that is underwritten to the point of cellophane. This time, his trademark frowning, glowering intensity just seems annoying.” The film is "a disaster."