A man of action
Pierre Morel’s ‘The Gunman’ reviewed

Sean Penn has long cultivated a reputation as an outlier in contemporary Hollywood, as well as a throwback. Penn spent the early years of his career apprenticing himself to an older generation of stars: George C Scott in Taps, Christopher Walken in At Close Range and Robert Duvall in the crime drama Colors. Colors was directed by Dennis Hopper, who kicked off a golden age in American cinema with 1969’s Easy Rider, the film that made a star of a young Jack Nicholson. Penn directed Nicholson in 1995’s The Crossing Guard and 2001’s The Pledge, and he’s the heir to that rabble-rouser tradition in taste as much as in lifestyle.

Like his idols, he’s not an actor who naturally gravitates towards the high concept. Unlike them, he came of age after the twin thunderclaps of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, and spent his prime rooting out honest-to-goodness characters amid a sea of Reaganite musclemen and franchise heroics. Penn is a star who has assiduously avoided star vehicles. He’s never done pure fantasy, but his aversion to the fantastical – with The Gunman following hot on the heels of Gangster Squad and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – seems to be faltering.

The Gunman was directed by Taken’s Pierre Morel and filmed in Africa, Barcelona, London and Gibraltar. The film contains a soupçon of geopolitical relevance, whereby one man takes on the shadowy military industrial complex plundering Africa without oversight or remorse. The script’s appeal to the crusading Penn, who’s spent the last few years intermittently living and working in Haiti, is obvious. Clearly, Western opportunism in Africa is presently his bête noire. Later this year we’ll see The Last Face, Penn’s latest film as a director, starring Charlize Theron as an aid worker in Liberia and Javier Bardem as a doctor. Amid social turmoil, you can bet they get together.

The plot of The Gunman apes The Bourne Identity to the letter. An American agent is tasked to take out an African troublemaker, then feels bad about it and repents, and is forced to go on the run when his old bosses attempt to tie up loose ends by taking him out. Our hero hotfoots it around the globe, looking for answers and romancing a sexy continental lass.

A steroidal-looking Penn, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays Jim Terrier, a private security contractor working in the Congo. Terrier has to leave the country after he assassinates the country’s mining minister, leaving the state in violent disarray and his beloved heartbroken. The look of the film is familiar – lots of gauze-tinted shots of leggy women in white shirts and no pants shooting come-hither glances through fluttering curtains. This is action cinema as perfume commercial; all the gloss of the Luc Besson factory line, where Morel got his start, with none of the wacky idiosyncrasy of the man himself.

Years later, Terrier is looking for redemption, working for an NGO somewhere in Africa. We’re re-introduced to him catching breaks at dawn, and the camera lingers, making sure we know it’s really Penn, the Malibu boy, carving up those waves. Terrier pads home, greeting natives as he goes. Back at HQ he’s reprimanded for jeopardising his safety by leaving the compound to surf – ever the rebel, even in the midst of self-flagellation by volunteer tourism.

By this point it’s clear that, for all its action trimmings, this is very much a Sean Penn joint. Even before he became a director, Penn was an actor as auteur. Like Mel Gibson, he’s consistently played variations on the same character: world-weary, haunted by past sins, staunchly anti-authoritarian. Much has been made of the influence Penn’s father, who was blacklisted, had on his son’s outlook, and Terrier is just another in a long line of Penn sceptics, suspicious of the higher-ups.

The chief pleasure of The Gunman – indeed the only one – is the cast. It’s hard to imagine either Ray Winstone or Idris Elba or Mark Rylance or Bardem deigning to be involved had Penn not been attached. It’s like The Expendables for brawny European thespians. Penn plays the toughest of the bunch, and though he looks buff beyond belief, he doesn’t make for a particularly engaging superman. Like Brando, his cool-guy persona has always existed despite his voice – tremulous, seemingly close to tears – and not because of it, and in Morel’s film his slightly dazed mien sits oddly beside his very special set of skills.

You can detect a disparity of intention between the film and its star. To Penn, The Gunman no doubt represents a sincere attempt to smuggle politics into a mainstream potboiler, but the film itself isn’t subversive enough – that Western consortiums value the bottom line over human lives ain’t exactly news. Penn’s unashamed earnestness has made him an anachronism in contemporary Hollywood (as well as an easy target), and this is the rare contemporary actioner that isn’t a relentless succession of quips. The two-time Oscar winner’s late-career move into Stallone territory shows a man evading a contemporary model of cool by embracing an outmoded one. To avoid irony these days, it seems any port will do. 

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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