Being an older, Oscar-winning actor and coming out of retirement to kick ass in lower budget action movies is the vogue at the moment. Liam Neeson wrote the blueprint with Taken, and has completely reinvented his late career. Now other high end middler-agers are coming out to take a piece of the bloody pie (Denzel, Guy Pearce etc).
Now it’s Sean Penn’s turn as The Gunman. Is he going to be the new Studio Canal Golden Boy? Or is this just another example of an elder statesman desperately trying to stay relevant?
Penn (Carlito’s Way, Casualties of War) plays Jim Terrier -yes, just like those small, annoying dogs. He’s a black ops/CIA operator working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo, if you don’t know, is a pretty wild place. Terrier is part of a hit squad that rolls around removing certain “obstacles” for his handlers.
He has am unusual habit of writing everything down. Observations, orders, missions, names – all of it goes in his note books. He even likes to record things on his mobile phone too. It’s kind of odd, considering the SECRET nature of his work, but hey-ho, everyone has to have a hobby.
When he’s not offing bad guys or taking notes, he likes sexy naps with the local doctor, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Their mutual friend, and Terrier’s contact to his superiors, Felix (Javier Bardem – Skyfall, Collateral), also has the hots for Annie. Yet, while he has money and security, he doesn’t have the six pack or badass dangerousness of Terrier. Annie ain’t going anywhere.
So when a mission comes up where the Congo minister of mining has to be assassinated, Felix knows the perfect man for the job – too bad it will be too hot for the gunman to stick around after the hit.
The job is pretty standard. Terrier and his team set up in high rises and snipe the minister in his car. Terrier pulls the trigger with a heavy heart, knowing he’ll be leaving Annie behind. Still, a job’s a job. The Congo, already a hot-bed of corruption, descends into further violence.
Years later Terrier is out of the killing business, and back in the Congo. This time he’s digging wells for charity, clearly atoning for his dark past. He’s purposely avoided Annie, and instead kills time surfing. It’s at this point we realize how in-shape Penn is.
Let’s face it, even at 54 years old, he’s more ripped than you or I ever will be. It’s embarrassing, even awkward, how cut he is. I mean, we all know that Liam Neeson is probably a handy mofo in reality, but he’s also probably slightly flabby around the edges. If Sean Penn has to get one up on Taken, he’s achieved it in the physique stakes at least. I thought that the running-with-surfboard scene was initially shoehorned into the film just to show that he’s bothered about the role. But this isn’t the last time we see his shredded abs. I guess in a film with Bardem and Winstone tubbing their way around, they need some eye-candy for the girls.
Anyway, during a routine drilling operation, some heavy-looking locals burst onto the site. They’re armed, snarling, and looking for the “white man”. They’re there to kill him. Sadly, they’ve underestimated Jim
Taken Terrier, and he messes them up in perhaps the coolest fight sequence in the film.
Terrier knows a professional kill squad when he sees one (he did lead one, remember). So off he pop’s to London to meet up with his old teammates. But not before a harrowing drive to the airport – a lifetime of war and fighting has left it’s mark on Terrier, and he’s now suffering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To us, this means lots of trippy camera effects. It’s more annoying than anything, and prevents Terrier from casually rolling over every enemy he faces.
One of his old buddies, Terry Cox (Mark Rylance – Blitz) is now the head of a multi-national security corporation. He thinks that if Terrier is at risk then the whole team might be too. But who is targeting them? The only person who knew about the contractors was Felix, who is now living the good life in Barcelona. He tells Terrier to track him down, while he “warns” the two other members of the squad.
You realize at this point that it’s actually Cox who is behind everything. But the cat isn’t totally out of the bag because we still don’t know “why” he wants his former partners dead yet. There’s still another hour left for that.
Terrier is non-the-wiser at this stage. So, off he pops to Barcelona. But not before being tracked by a shady agency via CCTV. He’s being watched by an enigmatic figure who is very clearly Idris Elba (Thor, Pacific Rim). Terrier, no stranger to being followed, loses his tail in a friendly London bar. It’s busy. Football is on.
But this is by design. Terrier is meeting another old friend – Stanley (Ray Winstone – The Departed, Scum). This is one of the better scenes in the film. Winstone and Penn take turns trying to be as gravely-voiced as possible. The cockney “fucking cupcake” slur from a patron is also highly amusing. Terrier needs Stanley to set him up with a kit and contacts in Barcelona. Stanley is dubious, but obliges his comrade, but only after Terrier Jiu Jitsu’s the annoying football hooligans who keeps bumping into their table.
Outside, Terrier staggers about. He’s got a bad head, and it’s not because of the noisy pub. Stanley drags his ass to hospital where the extent of the damage to his brain is revealed. The more stress, noise and trauma he suffers, the worse off he’s going to be. His mind is a ticking time bomb, but not in any hilariously insane way like Crank. The doc advises him to rest. We all know that isn’t going to happen until he finds out who is after him first. Christ, what a dramatic dilemma.
Stanley, a man of his word, sets him up with some old ex-pats in Barcelona. He’ll be flying out later to join in the fun and get a tan. Meanwhile, Terrier quickly tracks down Felix and confronts him. He’s married now (unhappily), to Annie, no less. He agrees to give Jim the information he needs, but only after a casual (and massively awkward) dinner between the three.
Annie, understandably is a bit surprised by his appearance at dinner. They all make a bit of a scene as Felix realizes Annie still carries a flame for her dangerous ex-partner. It’s all in the eyes, apparently.
She buggers off in a fit of emotional rage. Felix stays to piss away his miseries, while Terrier runs after her. They reconcile in his hotel room. It’s only after the deed is done does she reveal that Felix actually sent her to tell Terrier that he has the information he needs. They need to meet at their country estate to discuss it. Why he didn’t just email or text him this information I can’t explain. No wonder the marriage is breaking down.
We head into the country for the meeting. It’s in the middle of nowhere. The perfect place for an ambush. Terrier arrives and Felix is already drunk. The level of awkward can’t be measured when Annie walks in. We’re talking even more awkward than a Michael Cera performance. Bardem’s acting here is actually pretty spot on, while Penn just frowns his way through the scene.
Felix’s phone keeps going off. Before it’s made super obvious that he’s texting the BAD GUYS, he reveals that Terrier, himself, and the whole team are on a federal subpoena list for what they did years ago. He’s also discovered that the other two members of the squad are both dead via mysterious circumstances. Penn is the only one left.
After a clever bluff, it’s made clear that they’re coming for him now. What Felix doesn’t realize is that they’re going to kill him and Annie too just for getting in the way. It seems like a long time since the last bit of action, and the next sequence delivers. Squads of pro hit-dudes descend on the house. Felix, pissed, and sad that his wife likes the Gunman more, lets himself get snipered.
Now it’s just Annie and Terrier. He systematically kills everyone he comes across. One scene, where they’re pinned down in a bathroom is especially cool. The hit team start pouring burning petrol under the only door. Things get tense as you think there is no possible way out for them. But Jim Terrier finds a way.
Soon they’re away and safe. He reveals his shady history, and his complicity in the assassination of the minister of mining. Obviously, she’s shocked, appalled, but he still has to protect her and get them both out of dodge.
But first he has to get some hidden files from his apartment. Naturally it’s being watched. Savy Jimbo knows this, and finds a hidden boobytrap set to kill. He turns the tables on his pursuers, and the mine blows up in their faces when they try to follow him.
With his files recovered, and his tail all blown to hell, it’s time to get Annie out of the firing line. Who better to look after her than his good old friend, Stanley?
He advises Jim to hand himself into Interpol. Only they can protect both of them now. He’s also uncovered some more juicy information. It turns out that the security firm owned by Terry is in line for a new contract. Any older, shadier stuff on their record will play against them in a major way. So they need to clean house of any loose ends. Loose ends like Jim Terrier.
And that’s the plot. He’s being hunted because the company he used to work for don’t want their new bosses to know they dabbled in the old black ops game. Not that Terrier would have blabbed or anything. It’s taken 90 minutes to get to this point, and it’s hardly the devilish motive behind the film we’d suspected or hoped for. It seems too simple. Too obvious. Surely there is more to it then this…well there isn’t. Sorry.
There’s another thirty minutes to go, however.
This new company are working out of Gibraltar, just a quick jaunt down the coast from Barcelona. Terrier is there by the morning, ready to stake out the joint. He isn’t the only one. That shady character watching Terrier earlier? Well it is Idris Elba (surprise surprise) and he’s there to give Terrier a veiled message. That company he’s there to rumble? Well they’re being investigated by Interpol today, so back off.
The dialogue in this scene is really slick. Elba, as ever, is just cool as a cucumber. He cuts Terrier a break.
Terrier is in too deep of course. And seeing Cox walking out of the building is enough to keep his interest red hot. He calls him to set a meet – the Oceanic Aquarium in one hour.
The meet goes down, and there’s a shocking moment where Terrier punches this lovely female bystander. She’d recognised Cox, and was having a nice little chat about their kids. BAM! I immediately thought, is he going mad? Is he super paranoid? Do I sense a twist coming?? But moments later we see a syringe in her hand as she stumbles away, so it’s all valid. He grabs Cox and drags him into the restricted, staff only area of the aquarium. Naturally, there is no one around watching the super complicated equipment.
All the shouting and fighting sets off another bout of Terrier’s syndrome. God, what bad timing. Cox manages to use this to buy enough time for some of his heavies to track them down. Terrier reveals that he’s got records of everything they every talked about, and manages to put a bullet in Cox’s arm. But he’s deteriorating fast.
Cox’s minders turn up before Terrier can finish the job. A running gun battle ensues. Terrier, is out-manned and suffering, but manages to get away through a vent. Phew! you think, right now would really be a bad time for our man to fall unconscious thanks to his head trauma. What’s this?! Get up Jim Terrier! And he’s out.
None of the clearly American-hating Spaniards bother him until it’s night fall. At least he’s had a good sleep for a change. Better give Stan and Annie a call to check in. As Arnold would say, Big Mistake. Cox got there first. After some parting words from a battered Stanley, Cox executes him. We and Terrier alike are sad. Turns out that Terrier had dropped one of his notebooks back in the aquarium. Like an idiot, he’d written the address of the SUPER SECRET HIDEOUT inside.
Terrier bargains for Annie’s life with the remaining files he’s kept. They set one final meet – the local bull fighting arena.
Note – Yes, this is odd, considering Sean Penn is such a champion of nature and the poor etc. But you’ll see why he’s cool with this unusual locale in just a bit.
Terrier calls in Elba for some backup. During the event, one of Cox’s men gets eyes on Terrier. As the bastards converge, Terrier leads them ever further into the twisty turny underbelly of the coliseum. He then starts ambushing them one-by-one, like Batman.
He creatively uses a door to kill one man, but takes a bullet to the leg in the process. Soon he’s mixing krav maga with Cox’s number one dude on a gantry. Annie has managed to break loose and runs into the arena. Cox is in hot pursuit. Unbeknownst to either, Terrier and the Lieutenant have set loose a mad bull. It’s running down corridors just looking to gore some motherfucker.
With Terrier’s help, Annie manages to jump up to the gantry as the bull rumbles underneath. Cox get’s impaled for his troubles. Then Interpol turn up and arrest everyone left alive. Better late than never, right?
Idris is grateful that Cox and his guys have been stopped. But he’s a bit pissed that Terrier has gone over his head about it. Still, he’ll do all he can for him. After getting out of prison (mercifully a short term, considering, you know, all the murdering he’s been doing), Terrier is on his way back to Annie. Lessons have been learned, and it’s time to move on with their lives. End.
So, it’s your standard, serious action film. I’d be lying if some of the action sequences weren’t cool. But it’s also overly long and takes itself far too seriously. There’s little humour, little levity. You’re thinking, “it’s a typical Sean Penn film then” and you’d be right. Elements like the international meddling in a struggling African country are also something you’d expect from the do-gooder actor.
Penn’s character is trying to survive. I get this. It’s bad that he’s being hunted just because of some dark, shitty political maneouverings he was involved in ten years ago. But he was in that for the money. He wasn’t doing it for the good of the world. Surely, he is a viable target for playing such a role. Yeah he’s trying to put what he did right, but why should we care if another CIA killer is taken out?
I think it would have helped us get over onto Terrier’s side more if the bad guys were…badder. Their motivation is simple greed, and it is sad that they’re threatening the lovely doctor Annie and kill old Stanley. But this is par for the course in the underworld. It’s not like they’re stealing his daughter to sell into sex slavery? It’s not like they’re nuking the city to get to one man. They want it to be all quiet and controlled. A lot of destruction would have been saved if Terrier had just rolled over and died.
The scenes with Winstone and Elba all shine through as the best non-action parts of this film, but there is too much other crap between these moments that bogs us down. Bardem and Trinca are also both well cast, but quickly descend into one note roles. Trinca, especially, was set up very well, but becomes the whining third wheel dragged along for the ride on Sean Penn’s motorcyle tour of death.
The sporadic action is pretty cool, but it’s not The Raid levels of insane, nor is it as enthralling as Haywire or the likes. In fact, Haywire is a good film to compare this to – it’s a slow-burning ensemble piece with an enigmatic and badass lead. Where Haywire succeeds is that the action is mixed up. It’s a running gun battle one second, a personal duel to the death in a hotel room the next. The Gunman is pretty much all about killing people with his handgun in the sunny country-side of Europe. There’s lots of loud gunfire, and lots of shaky camera bollocks.
From the director of Taken, Pierre Morel (District 13, From Paris With Love), I’d have hoped for more. The setting is similar (Europe). A girl is in the firing line. The only one who can save her is an older badass. But Liam Neeson’s John Taken was much more charismatic. He’s there for revenge as much as anything, and we can get behind that story, even if you didn’t have a stupid, spoiled daughter who’d buggered off to Pairs despite your best advice. We only sort of get behind Jim Terrier, though this because he’s the main character. Speaking of characters, the cast list and trailer really do paint a picture that it isn’t just a Sean Penn vehicle. But make no mistake about it – it is. Idris has about three minutes of screen time. Winstone only slightly more.
Let’s face it, the title is odd too, as he only really shoots one guy properly, you know as an actual gunman. Yeah, I get it – he’s the “gunman” the baddies are trying to kill, yes. And it’s not such a glaring misnomer as say Reservoir Dogs, but it’s still a bit misleading. When I go to see a film called The Gunman, I’d expect that at least one part of the gun-man’s anatomy has been cut-off and replaced with a gun. Like Robocop. Or at least a “gearing up” scene like in Commando.
I’m usually championing longer films – all too often characters are not left fully explored in the 90 minute cinema cookie-cutters. This is actually a film that needed twenty or thirty minutes trimming. It needed to be shredded like it’s star. We need wham-bam-thank you-man here. It’s not artistic enough, the action not wild enough, and the story too simplistic, for it to be allowed to be as long as it is.
The inclusion of the PTSD stuff is interesting, but is purely there as a handicap for the super soldier Terrier. It didn’t make me like him any more or less. Admittedly, I was happy for him and Annie at the end. They’d earned their respite. Yet despite this and the amazing cast and the occasional cool sequence, I doubt the film will be super successful. Nor will it be remembered for much more than the ripped-ness of Sean Penn.
Get it watched. If you have a few hours to spare.