'The Gunman': Film Review

This humorless action film becomes unintentionally camp by the end

In his first starring role in a few years, Sean Penn plays a reformed mercenary trying to redeem himself in the latest from 'Taken' director Pierre Morel

Taking the lead protagonist role for a change instead of playing the villain (as in Gangster Squad) or a peripheral enigma (see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or The Tree of Life), Sean Penn stars as a reformed hitman seeking redemption in the trite action film The Gunman. Taken's Pierre Morel may be in the director's chair but Penn has credits as both a co-screenwriter and producer, and ultimately this 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.

Ripe, borderline hammy turns from Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba and Mark Rylance add some spice and box-office appeal, but otherwise this is pretty boilerplate stuff that takes itself way too seriously. Ticket 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.

The opening prologue, set in 2006, establishes the bona fides of Penn's character, Jim Terrier, as a tough guy with a soft spot for his idealistic doctor girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). These two crazy mixed-up kids are living together in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he toils, by day, for a security task force protecting mining operations and, by night, as a mercenary hitman for shadowy interests. When his associate, Felix (Bardem), who has barely disguised hots for Annie, assigns Terrier to assassinate the DCR's minister of mining (Clive Curtis), Jim has no choice but to leave the country - and Annie - behind immediately.

The years and opening credits pass, and now in the present Jim has come back to Africa, this time to help the locals mine for themselves. And also, it seems, to surf, which affords the audience one of several opportunities to ogle Penn's gym-bunny abs. However, one day in the jungle, some heavies come looking for him. His fixer, Eugene (Ade Oyefeso, one of the only two black actors who has more than three lines here, despite the amount of time spent in Africa), helps Jim to quell the threat, but Jim realizes that the attack must have something to do with what happened in his past.

Retrieving secret squirrel stashes of passports, cash and weapons hidden around Europe, he begins his quest to find out who put out the hit on the hitman by looking up old associates from his mercenary days. He starts in London (a glassy haze of riverside apartments and skyscrapers), where he first checks in with Cox (Mark Rylance, still rocking the collar-length hair and shifty eyes from playing Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall), a cynical former point man who's now gone semi-legit, and an aging muscle-for-hire, cor-blimey-guvnor-Cockney Stanley (Ray Winstone, rocking greasy hair and a perpetually amused expression).

They don't seem to know anything, so next Jim's off to Barcelona where Felix is now promoting non-specific business ventures in Africa to help the poor, and is shacked up with Annie. Jim stalks her round town, giving the film some time to bask in the Catalonian atmosphere and establish that she and Felix are planning to adopt a child, before he finally gets up the courage to visit her. There are literally just seconds between her giving him the obligatory angry-woman slap and then pulling him into bed for some ex-sex. Later, they grow even closer when he saves her from yet more angry hit guys who pounce when Jim comes to Annie and Felix's countryside mansion for lunch.

Up until this point, the cast's natural charisma and talent is sufficient to maintain interest in the thinly written material, credited to Penn, Don MacPherson (The Avengers) and Pete Travis (Dredd), which pays lip service to the troubles in DRC via some news-footage montages and clunky explication. The political agenda doesn't mesh in a meaningful way with the soapier drama hinged on which unappealing man Annie will end up with — the dead-eyed assassin or the sleazy businessman. But given that Trinca's role is so underwritten it's clear that the romance is of secondary interest to the filmmakers, and ultimately she's merely a pawn in a game of macho action-movie chess, shot by Flavio Labiano in the manner of the Bourne films with handheld rigs and grainy-looking stock.

It all becomes even more of a slog once Jim and Annie 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. Somewhere along the way, Elba lurches into view as an Interpol agent who wants to help Jim, 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.

Production companies: A Studiocanal presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment of a Silver Pictures, Nostromo Pictures Prone Gunman AIE, Prone Gunman Ltd. production in co-production with TFI Films Production
Cast: Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Jasmine Trinca, Peter Franzen, Javier Bardem
Director: Pierre Morel
Screenwriters: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn, based on the novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Producers: Andrew Rona, Sean Penn, Ron Halpern
Executive producers: Steve Richards, Aaron Auch, Peter McAleese, Adrian Guerra, Olivier Courson
Director of photography: Flavio Labiano
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Frederic Thoraval
Composer: Marco Beltrami, Jose Luis Rodriguez
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Sales: Studiocanal
Rated R, 115 minutes