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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Gunman

Oh, Sean. Oh, Sean. What have you done?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After a high-profile assassination of the minister of mining in the Congo, former special forces soldier turned mercenary hitman, Jim Terrier, tries to leave his old life behind him and embarks on a career working for a non-profit organisation. His past soon catches up to him, however, as he is attacked while on a philanthropic mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo and he quickly learns that his entire team is now the target of shadowy forces.

What we thought

Directed by Taken's Pierra Morrel, the Gunman effectively tries to do for “serious actor” Sean Penn what Taken did for fellow (once) “serious actor” Liam Neeson: turn him into an action star that can go head to head with the likes of Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson. Also like Taken, it tries to mix serious world issues – human trafficking in Taken; American corporations' exploitation of third world countries in the Gunman – with nuts and bolts, and often quite brutal, action thrills. It fails. On both counts.

While it's true, I have never understood the appeal of Taken, let alone it's sequels, it's at least better than what we have here. Well, in most ways, anyway. Taken still takes the cake for its callously ill-judged melding of the real-life horrors of human trafficking with seriously goofy sub-Die-Hard action silliness, but on every other level, it's unquestionably the superior piece of work.

Besides, while the tonal inconsistencies of the Gunman aren't quite as glaring or disastrous as its predecessor's, it still clearly doesn't know what the hell it's trying to be. It spends a fair amount of time dealing with the mess in Congo and the part that US corporations play in such conflicts and these sections of the film are sincerely, if not necessarily compellingly, handled with a serious, even morose tone that's appropriate, if not particularly enjoyable. It's not too long, however, before the “dramatic” and socially aware aspects of the Gunman fade far into the background and an utterly unconvincing mix of convoluted conspiracy thriller and man-against-the-world action flick take over.

Even for a big fan of conspiracy fiction like yours truly, the conspiracy plot is simultaneously overcooked and underwritten as it fails to embrace either the goofy fun or the satirical sharpness of the genre at its best. It's boring, basically – which is really the absolute worst crime a conspiracy thriller can commit. If you think it works better as an action thriller, however, well, you'd only be partly right. The action scenes are unquestionably competently, if unexcitingly, done so it at least works on that level but, again, the seriousness of the subject matter at the beginning of the film gives it a weightiness and sincerity that it really doesn't deserve. Yet again, tonal incompatability and dullness is the name of the game.

Strangely, perhaps the biggest – or at least the most emblematic – problem with the film is Sean Penn. Penn is unquestionably a superb, intensely committed actor but he really, really doesn't have the likeability or the specific kind of charisma to carry this kind of film. He does OK during the film's more serious moments – though even there, the material doesn't give him enough dramatic material to really chew on – but he is utterly unconvincing as an action star. While Liam Neeson turned out to be surprisingly great as a full-on action star (though really, Liam, isn't it about time you shook things up with something a bit more challenging every once in a while?), the entire time Penn is on screen here in action-hero mode, I found myself desperately wishing I was watching Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson instead.

The Gunman is occasionally lifted by a fun performance from the great Ray Winstone and it's always nice to see Idris Elba in even a small cameo role (Javier Bardem, meanwhile, gets the short end of the stick in a truly rotten role) but between its badly cast lead star, its badly handled tonality and its relentless dullness and almost total lack of a sense of humour, it's yet another major misfire for its director.




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