This review is unforgivably late due to circumstances beyond my control.
Some actors have the goods to transcend the fact that in real life they are miserable cretins. Along with Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, Sean Penn is one of them. Penn is a movie star in every sense of the word, and the thought of the grizzled 54 year-old taking himself a little less seriously with a straight-forward genre film, is an exciting one.
Co-scripted by Penn (a fine screenwriter adapting a novel here), directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”) and co-starring Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba, what could possibly go wrong with “The Gunman?”
The story opens in 2006. The Congo is war-torn due to natural resources coveted by local militia and multinationals. Jim Terrier (Penn) works for the latter, does a terrible thing, and is forced to leave the continent without saying good-bye to the woman he loves.
Eight years later, just like the real Sean Penn, Terrier spends a lot of time in a developing country hoping to prove to the world and to himself he’s not an asshole. The plot is entirely too incoherent for me to explain why, but Terrier’s past does catch up to him. This leads to globe-trotting, past-facing, horribly constructed action scenes, and endless shots of Penn’s shirtless vanity.
Penn and Morel are obviously aiming to make an intelligent action-thriller that has something important to say about our world. A worthy goal, no question, and where it all went so horribly wrong I can’t fully explain. What I do know is that exciting action scenes can paper over all kinds of storytelling problems, and therein lies “Gunman’s” biggest flaw.
Like Denzel and Bronson and McQueen, Penn carries the screen presence required to elevate an action sequence into something iconic. Incredibly, nothing is done in “Gunman” to take advantage of that.
Instead, the action is rote, chaotic and outright tedious. As cheesy a cliché as slo-mo, fog, backlighting, and catch-phrases are, anything would have helped.
America desperately needs masculine actions stars, especially with Liam Neeson’s script choices making me wonder if he’s developed a learning disability.
Penn should try again with an Antoine Fuqua or Ridley Scott, and a script as ambitious about being cool as it is about saving the world.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC