The Gunman starts in the Congo in 2006. News reports tell us the country’s ongoing civil war is the worst conflict since World War II. But this is not a polemic about the travails of a small, imploding African nation. No, this is about mercenary sniper Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), who’s there to kill people. He’s also in love with girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor. The good news for Jim is that he gets to kill the minister of mining. The bad news? He has to leave Annie behind when he skips the country. Win some, lose some.
Jump to eight years later and we see Jeff Spicoli … oh, wait … Jim surfing, and then getting viciously attacked. The main conflict kicks into gear as Jim tries to track down those who ordered his murder. In London, he talks to old friends Terry (Mark Rylance) and Stanley (Ray Winstone), and in Barcelona, he chats with Felix (Javier Bardem), who had told Jim to take that shot in the Congo and is now married to Annie. Director Pierre Morel’s (Taken) film also takes us to Gibraltar — you’d think all the traveling would lead to a grand sense of adventure, but it doesn’t.
Sean Penn is 54 but has the chiseled body of a 21-year-old who works out and watches what he eats. This is Sylvester Stallone-as-Rocky impressive, which has the added benefit of his being better-looking than all the bad guys he kills. And for an actor who scoffed at action roles for much of his career, Penn certainly breaks plenty of bones and shoots enough people in the face here. It’s as if every blood spurt, punch, knife through the throat and gunshot through the hand is making up for lost time. The fact that it’s rendered in a rather ho-hum way is a bit of a shame; the violence is brutal but there’s nothing novel here — it’s standard action fare.
Speaking of novel, the film is based on a book by the late French author Jean-Patrick Manchette, which may explain why it gets overwhelmed with details at times. The love triangle with Felix weighs the story down, but the real sin is the head trauma that makes Jim a tad woozy at inopportune moments. Whether he endures this or not, he’s still going to have arduous battles with bad guys, and a similar effect could be shown by his getting hit in the head in those fights — we don’t need five minutes with a doctor and an MRI, nor the inconvenient timing of his condition manifesting itself.
The Gunman is a heady, grown-up action movie that lacks style and energy. And for you Idris Elba fans, it lacks his presence, too. Elba may have prominent billing on the poster, but he doesn’t appear until 80 minutes in, and then only sporadically in the remaining 35 minutes. Much like the film itself, with its intriguing premise, the filmmakers had something good in their hands and squandered it.