With the likes of Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone continuing their assault on the box office in the Die Hard and Expendables series, middle-aged action heroes have never looked in better shape. But The Gunman is a leap too far for Sean Penn who, as producer and star, hires director Pierre Morel (the man who made Liam Neeson a bona fide action hero in Taken) to try and make him look good.
What’s often said of any great action star is that men want to be him while women want to be with him. Well, frankly, Sean Penn is not that guy. He is a character actor – that is to say, funny-looking, despite his talents – but this is a film that doesn’t require much acting beyond making an angry face, or grunting from the pain of a flesh wound. Besides that, his character – black ops mercenary Jim Terrier – comes across as entirely self-serving.
Morel dresses him up like the romantic antihero and also strips him down within the first ten minutes – or perhaps it’s Penn who is eager to showcase the twitching pecs and sweaty six-pack (never mind the turkey neck). Yes, he’s done some bad things, but it may just be the excess of testosterone, a side effect of being too sexy for his shirt. In any case, Terrier is a man who is driven by simple urges. He likes money – hence he agrees to assassinate a Congolese minister – and he likes pretty girls, in this case Annie (Jasmine Trinca), but he finds he can’t have one and then the other.
Terrier is forced to skedaddle after “completing” his contract, leaving Annie to cry on the shoulder of his old cohort and love rival Felix, played by Javier Bardem, ripe as Iberico ham. Cut to eight years later and it seems some people have a hard time forgetting what Terrier did, even though he’s now working for an NGO trying to clean up the mess he made. An attempt is made on his life so he makes a beeline for Barcelona where Felix might be able to help him out. The rest of us might feel that is wholly unlikely, given the snorting contempt with which Felix regards Terrier, but then angelic Annie did end up marrying him, so maybe he’s not that bad…?
The thing about Annie is, she’s a bog-standard damsel in distress – clinging to anyone who might offer her shelter – and the kind of blubbering victim that belongs in a very old school shoot-‘em-up, which, evidently, this film aspires to be. Except, it feels so dated – the formula is completely lacking in fizz, as is the chemistry between the on-screen lovers. And if Annie is supposed to reflect Terrier’s softer side, that doesn’t work either; Terrier’s pursuit of Annie is to completely disregard her welfare. He’s more interested in killing the people who want to kill him and he doesn’t seek redemption as much as wait for it to be handed to him.
Ultimately, Jim Terrier is a shadow of a man and not in a cool, tortured soul kind of a way, but in a vacuous, underwritten and utterly uninteresting one. Among the supporting cast, Ray Winstone is the token cockney and Idris Elba delivers barely more than a cameo. Mark Rylance, too, whose recent performance in Wolf Hall was blistering in its quiet intensity, has sold himself short in a role that tips the film off balance. That’s not his fault. It all comes down to a script that is far too on the button, stringing together unimaginatively staged shoot-outs between crass exchanges of dialogue, but because the action is set in Spain, the big showdown occurs in a bullring. Here, Morel stamps the symbolism with heavy hands and small impact – and bull just about sums it up.
The Gunman is released in cinemas on Friday 20 March