'Taken' Fatigue: Sean Penn's 'The Gunman' Latest Knock-Off to Bomb

The Gunman Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Optimum Releasing

The Gunman Still - H 2015

The R-rated action-thriller marks the worst opening of the actor's career for a film released in more than 2,000 theaters.

Earlier this month, before Run All Night opened at the box office, Liam Neeson said he'll retire as an action star in two years. Don't be surprised if it happens sooner.

Some six years after Taken stormed the box office and put Neeson, 62, on a new career course, audiences appear to be growing weary of the proverbial aging actor playing a gun-wielding badass. The malaise set in just as a string of Taken knock-offs rolled out to dismal box-office results, including The Gunman, starring Sean Penn, and Neeson's Run All Night, which has earned a meek $35 million in its first 10 days of play globally.

Directed by Taken's Pierre Morel, Gunman opened to $5 million at the domestic box office this weekend, the worst start of Penn's career for a title playing in 2,000 or more theaters. In Gunman, Penn, 54, plays a sniper who years earlier took out a top political figure in the Congo, forcing him into hiding. Now he returns to the Congo only to become a target himself.

A week earlier, Run All Night debuted to $11 million, the lowest showing for a Neeson movie in the post-Taken era, although A Walk Among the Tombstones didn't do much better last September when launching to $12.8 million. Around the same time, The November Man, starring Pierce Brosnan as a post-CIA operative lured back into the game, also disappointed. Ditto for Kevin Costner's 3 Days to Kill in February 2014. (One bright spot in 2014 was The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington.)

Paul Dergarabedian, Rentrak's box-office analyst, says genre fatigue has clearly set in.

"The Taken series was a very specific success. The way Liam Neeson portrayed the character of Bryan Mills was pitch-perfect. The revenge tale has been done forever, but this struck a chord," Dergarabedian said. "Now the violent action movie with the older guy has been done so much that in order to get people's attention, you have to come up with something original. If you don't, audiences feel like they have seen it before."

In January, the third and final Taken grossed $311.1 million globally. While that's certainly a hefty number for a movie that cost $48 million to produce, it was below the $376.1 million grossed by Taken 2, released in 2012. The first Taken earned $226.8 million.

No one can argue the success of the Taken series, which led to several other hits for Neeson, including Unknown and Non-Stop. But Dergarabedian notes that those two films, along with the three Taken films, were all rated rated PG-13, compared to an R for Run All Night and Gunman.

One studio executive said there was bound to be saturation once everyone joined in the Taken parade and cast older male stars as vengeful action heroes. "It's overkill at this point," the executive said.

If Dergarabedian's hunch is right, Hollywood could try to emulate Matthew Vaughn's cheeky spy film Kingsman: The Secret Service, starring Colin Firth, 54. The movie, released in February, has grossed nearly $300 million globally. "It was this differentiation," he said, "that enabled it to stand out from the crowd in the mind of the audience and not get lumped in with the other myriad cookie-cutter action flicks out there."