THE GUNMAN (NC16)
Action/115 minutes/Opens tomorrow
Eight years ago, Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) worked as a security contractor guarding humanitarian workers in Congo while moonlighting as a contract killer.
On one off-the-book mission, his colleague, Felix (Javier Bardem) assigns him to execute the Mining Minister, forcing Terrier to leave the country and the love of his life, Annie (Jasmine Trinca).
Cut to the present, with Terrier atoning for his past sins by digging wells for a non-governmental organisation. His penance is rudely interrupted by a death squad and Terrier goes on a quest to find out who wants him pushing up daisies.
While in Barcelona, he discovers that Felix is now a successful businessman at an aid organisation - and happily married to Annie.
First, it was Liam Neeson, with his character's "very particular set of skills" in Taken (2008). Next, it was Kevin Costner in 3 Days To Kill (2014).
Now, it is Sean Penn's turn to be an over-the-hill American covert operative running around Europe, leaving bodies and demolished buildings in his wake.
Here, we have the 54-year-old Penn's former mercenary, Jim Terrier, taking on hordes of assassins half his age, shirtless but for a flak vest. He also has a young buck's libido, demonstrated by his frequent erotic scenes with his girlfriend, Annie, played by Jasmine Trinca.
Penn's protagonist ticks all the boxes of what makes a cool hero - he can speak French, surf, defuse bombs and win a bar fight unarmed.
It is exciting to watch Terrier outsmart the baddies: escaping through airducts, using everyday objects like a spade to lethal effect and turning booby traps planted by his foes against them. He is pretty much Matt Damon's Jason Bourne in his twilight years.
This movie adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Prone Gunman appears to be Penn's pet project. His dedication to portraying the remorseful gunslinger shows in his thousand-yard stare, majestic washboard abs and frequent close-ups during fight sequences to tell the viewer that, yes, that is him wielding a machete, not a stunt double.
As an anti-war advocate and a humanitarian involved in the Haiti earthquake relief efforts, he imbues the film - which he co-wrote and co-produced - with ripped-from-the-headlines themes. These heavy topics, like the rise in private military corporations and their use for corporate interests, are helpfully spelt out by book-ending news bulletins.
Unfortunately, none of these motifs manage to coalesce into anything meaningful or insightful, and they are quickly forgotten amid the explosions and arterial sprays.
The rest of the cast are also sidelined. Javier Bardem channels his snickering villain from Skyfall (2012) to play Terrier's love rival, Felix, but exits the story abruptly and without dignity halfway.
Trinca's love interest character does not do much beyond waking up next to Terrier wearing only a dress shirt and repeatedly being a damsel in distress.
And, despite his top billing, Idris Elba appears fleetingly as an Interpol agent eager to bring Terrier in, although he does get a memorable subtext-laden monologue in which he talks the former mercenary out of doing something stupid.
Director Pierre Morel - who launched the Taken franchise and possibly the "geri-action genre" of old men doing a young action hero's job - has a keen eye for spatial awareness, honed from his work on the Transporter car-chase series and parkour actioner District B13. The camera tracks a hit squad's assault on a country mansion and a sniper kill with pinpoint precision as they unfold, and there is even a clever match cut during the finale which compares Terrier to a wounded bull.
There are times when the film surprises you with its realism, like a fireteam employing room-clearing tactics and Terrier suffering from post-concussion syndrome, or head trauma.
But then the movie trips up with unintentionally hilarious moments like Terrier stealing a stranger's dinner jacket which fits him perfectly, or inaccuracies like a showdown taking place at a bull fight in Barcelona, where the blood sport has been banned since 2011.
In the end, The Gunman is on target for its visceral action scenes and hard-working leading man, but misses the mark for the neglected supporting characters and half-hearted political statements. Penn is better off delivering punches than polemics.
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