REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
It’s been a full decade since 2005’s “The Interpreter.” In it, Sean Penn played opposite Nicole Kidman in a film directed by Sydney Pollack. That was the last time that Penn headlined a multiplex vehicle. Penn has often played characters with a macho edge to them. However, he has never appeared in an action thriller.
At 54, Penn plays the lead role in, “The Gunman,” a quintessential mainstream action thriller. Was Penn inspired by the transition of Liam Neeson from indie film fixture to major international action hero? Consider that “The Gunman” is directed by Pierre Morel. He had previously helmed “Taken,” the film that redefined Neeson’s screen image. Coincidence? Not likely.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, a mustachioed former Special Forces soldier, who provides security for a mining operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) circa 2006. Neither Jim nor the viewer knows who the client is.
Jim has an alluring girlfriend, Annie (Italian actress, Jasmine Trinca), from an unspecified European nation. She’s an altruistic doctor providing free health care to indigent Africans. Does it seem likely that she would have some black ops type as her paramour?
Jim’s boss, Felix (Javier Bardem) is a shadowy figure with a dubious set of motives. These seem to include somehow prying apart the smitten lovebirds, Annie and Jim. How can Felix possibly achieve this?
As footage plays in the background, faux news anchors detail the ongoing civil unrest that is putatively taking place in the country. Insurgent rebels are battling the central government in Kinshasha. The country’s abundant supplies of natural resources; in the form of diamonds, cobalt, and copper ore; inspire rapacious appetites. Both sides commit rampant human rights abuses. Countless civilians are senselessly killed. Even more are displaced by these bloody struggles.
It turns out t
hat Jim and his fellow security agents have a covert parallel mission. One of them will be tasked to assassinate the Minister of Mines. Again, it is unclear to them who the client is and why they would want the government official eliminated. No matter-these men, including Jim, are mercenaries. They need not concern themselves with such matters.
Of course, Felix assigns Jim to do the dirty deed. Jim’s kill shot triggers chaos in the Congo. He must disappear into the wind and leave Annie behind.
The film fast forwards eight years. Now, Jim is devoid of his cheesy moustache and drilling wells for an N.G.O. back in the sub-Saharan African. Has a gnawing sense of guilt prompted Jim to experience an epiphany? Is he now doing good deeds to atone for his nefarious misconduct of the past?
One day, a cadre of killers inexplicably attack the village where Jim is working. Although Jim only wields a shovel, he is somehow able to overcome these men, all of whom have automatic rifles. Although it is not apparent from the text of the film, I assume that Jim’s shovel must have been equipped with special features that turn it into a high-tech weapon.
Jim is convinced that he has been targeted for elimination. Why is he so sure? He just has an instinct about it.
So, Jim travels to Spain, where Felix now lives and become a consultant. Oh, by the way, Jim’s beloved Annie has now married Felix and they are about to adopt a baby. The film unsuccessfully attempts to account for how Annie could have married an obvious slime ball like Felix. It is one of the screenplay’s panoply of far-fetched contrivances.
In another ludicrous plot twist, Jim interrupts a lecture being given by Felix. Is that supposed to ingratiate Jim to his one-time boss? For that matter, why doesn’t Jim suspect that Felix may have harbored ulterior motives in assigning him to be the one to assassinate the Minister of Mines?
The absurdities mount up. Felix incongruously invites Jim to join him and Annie for dinner together at a fancy restaurant. En route to the dinner assignation, Jim pilfers a sports jacket off the back of a chair of a man, who is eating alfresco. Somehow, the man never notices that his sports jacket has been lifted. Incongruously, the sports jacket of a random stranger is a perfectly tailored fit for Jim. When Jim arrives at the restaurant, Felix is stupefied as if he hadn’t issued an invitation. Annie is incensed. Why hadn’t Felix told her that Jim was still alive and would be joining them for dinner?
Things go even further downhill from there. Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance play characters, whose respective connections to the original assassination prove confusing. In an appearance that comes late in the film, Idris Elba once again manifests great screen presence. Although Elba’s character has little to do other than flick a cigarette lighter, he does so with considerable élan.
The screenplay is derived from “The Prone Gunman,” a 1971 pulp novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Initially, I was flabbergasted to learn that the lead writer of this execrable screenplay was Don McPherson, whose credits include, “The Avengers.” Further research assuaged my incredulity. “The Avengers” in question was the disastrous 1998 cinematic remake of the old ‘60s television show, not the stunning 2012 resurrection of the Marvel Comics heroes. Coincidentally, the two films of widely discrepant quality bear the same name.
Numerous scenes feature a shirtless Penn. He displays a physique, which is remarkably ripped for a man well into middle age. However, many of these vignettes are gratuitous and ignore geographical realities. How does a scene of Penn surfing in the Congo advance the narrative? Admittedly, the country is not landlocked. However, it contains no known surf spots. Moreover, Penn’s character is supposedly working in an inland village not a coastal location.
Adding to its litany of flaws, the film is disdainful of any semblance of historical verisimilitude. It attributes a confabulatory history to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also uses a Barcelonan bullfight for a backdrop of a 2014 scene, notwithstanding that the sport has been banned throughout Catalonia since 2012.
Full of sloppy plotting and inane dialogue, “The Gunman” totally misses the target.
** R (for strong violence, language and some sexuality) 115 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.