The Gunman

Sean Penn in The Gunman

Pierre Morel's action-packed, Sean Penn-starring thriller The Gunman is bookended by scenes which underline a humanitarian crisis: the Democratic Republic of Congo is being ripped apart by an ongoing series of conflicts between the government, local rebels and private contractors. It's a heartbreaking situation, and the sort of complex, politically loaded subject Penn often seems eager to tackle. After all, he's one of modern cinema's most prominent activists; a man who shies away from dumb blockbusters and tacky comedies in favor of focusing on projects that actually have something meaningful to say. Considering that, it's surprising to realize that the real-world issues addressed in The Gunman are little more than window dressing for a pretty conventional shoot-em-up thriller.

Okay, maybe it's not that surprising – Morel's now-iconic Taken basically did the same thing, pretending that its high-octane, hilariously xenophobic revenge fantasy was actually a serious meditation on international sex trafficking. The key difference is that Taken was a riveting (if occasionally repulsive) piece of entertainment, benefiting from narrative focus and a sensational, career-redefining star turn from Liam Neeson. The Gunman, on the other hand, often turns into messy mush. It resists its dumb thriller impulses too frequently to be consistently entertaining, and it submits to its dumb thriller impulses too often to be genuinely thought-provoking.

Penn plays Jimmy Terrier, an American assassin posing as a member of a humanitarian aid group. The film's early scenes permit us to witness his last major assignment: the assassination of a Congolese mining minister (an action which benefits the western businessmen attempting to strip the area of its natural resources). The aftermath of the killing forces Jimmy to go off the grid for a while, and nudges his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca, The Best of Youth) into the arms of Jimmy's jealous associate Felix (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men).

Fast-forward eight years, and Jimmy is attempting to atone for the sins of his past. He's doing actual humanitarian aid work now, digging wells and helping small African coastal villages rebuild. Alas, his past isn't done with him: a group of professional killers make an unsuccessful attempt to take Jimmy's life. Who are these people? How did they recognize Jimmy? Most importantly, who are they working for? Jimmy needs to find answers, which means a series of uncomfortable reunions with old associates.

The actors hired to play those associates are overqualified for this nonsense. In addition to Bardem, you have Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) as a gruffly likable mercenary, Mark Rylance (The Other Boleyn Girl) as a sly businessman and Idris Elba (The Wire) as a no-nonsense Interpol Agent. That's a veritable all-star team of middle-aged character actors, and they supply a rather large percentage of the film's most enjoyable moments. Elba and Winstone are given too little screen time, but Rylance seems to enjoy chewing on a handful of the film's meatiest monologues and Bardem serves up about a dozen different shades of colorful irritation in his handful of scenes. Do these guys deserve better parts? Of course they do, but the film certainly benefits from what they bring to the table.

Unfortunately, Penn – the most celebrated member of the cast – can't seem to hold up his end of the bargain. He seems to be aiming for some sort of world-weary fatigue (which, in fairness, is the right note to play here), but undershoots the mark and instead delivers something much closer to confused disinterest. The actor's frequently dazed appearance is partially explained by the fact that Jimmy is suffering from serious brain damage – side effects include intermittently blurred version, unreliable memory and excessively contrived plot developments.

The story is Ludlum-lite nonsense that gets sillier as it goes. There's a stretch of the first act where we think we might be watching a thought-provoking thriller about guilt, jealousy and first-world greed, but the wheezy cliches begin to pile up at an alarming rate. Annie is at the center of many of them, as this is yet another action movie that uses all of its females characters as props. Annie is alternately treated as a pawn, a prize and a princess in need of rescue. Her behavior is often inexplicable – she marries Felix despite the fact that he's a complete jerk, and she leaps into Jimmy's arms (and into his bed) when he returns despite the fact that he makes almost no real effort to win her back. She's inevitably kidnapped around the film's halfway point, a lazy way of preventing the tale from coming to a close around that point (Jimmy has all of the evidence he needs to incriminate his adversaries, but he can't turn it in without getting the people he loves killed). The whole thing climaxes with a ridiculous (but admittedly entertaining) setpiece at a bullfight, and I'm sure you've already guessed how the film's Big Bad meets his end.

Those coming for the gunplay will get their fill, I suppose, as Morel continues to solidify his reputation as a perfectly competent mid-level action director. There's nothing particularly distinct about his brand of action filmmaking, but it's reasonably well-staged and occasionally exciting (a sequence set inside Felix's lavish home is a silly-but-compelling cocktail of death, mayhem, fire, showers and makeout sessions). It's fine, but it would undoubtedly be a lot more exciting if we felt invested in the larger narrative (or at least in Penn's character). The variety of international locations add some welcome visual flavor to the mix, but the soundtrack undercuts that flavor with a score that often sounds like the interior of a steel works factory.

We could argue about what The Gunman should have been – a friskier entertainment, a quieter drama, a more serious political film – but there's little question that the film would have been improved dramatically by picking one of those and sticking to it. It's not exciting enough, it's not smart enough, it's not nuanced enough and it's not entertaining enough to be truly satisfying on any level. I won't claim to have the correct solution, but when you make a movie this unmemorable with a cast this talented, you're doing something wrong.

The Gunman

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 2015