It is what it is.
Pierre Morel’s The Gunman is such a menial cinematic actioneer that it isn’t even worth existing. Being that it’s from the same guy who brought us Taken back in 2008, which at least had occasional bouts of excitement and peril, it’s amazing to see a film by him so sterile and feeble. Worst of all, the film feels so much like a cut and paste effort to please studio executives with another beginning-of-the-year action release, made up of odds and ends men in suits think we’d like to see over what we’d actually like to see, that it’s as if we’re watching a film nobody asked for.
One of the few positives of The Gunman is that it gives Liam Neeson time to take a hot bath and lather his entire body with Icy Hot. Sean Penn, the latest candidate in this exhausting line of aging action heroes proving they can keep up with guys half their age, steps up to the plate here, playing Jim Terrier, an ex-soldier living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jim works for a humanitarian organization, and, one day, creates civil unrest and turmoil by assassinating a corrupt official for a foreign mining company. Following the event, we pick up eight years later where Jim’s wife (Jasmine Trinca) is now his ex-wife, married to his former coworker Felix (Javier Bardem in perhaps his weakest role yet), his health is greatly deteriorating with chronic headaches and fainting, and goons out to make him repay for his assassination in the Congo.
Penn is almost always the center of attention in The Gunman, which is fine, as Penn has proven through diverse roles he’s capable of carrying a movie, but the talent on display here is really cut short and given stupid, half-baked roles to fill. Bardem is laughable, as he spends some of his desperately little screentime drugged out of his mind, Idris Elba shows up just when you think the studios forgot to erase his name off the poster for less then eight minutes, and Ray Winstone, who plays Terrier’s longtime friend, isn’t given enough time on screen either, even though every time he appears he gives The Gunman some sort of life and drive. Why pay the actors so much and give them prominence on the poster when they you give them nothing to do and make their appearance nothing more than a glorified cameos? We’re living in an age that’s beginning to disprove the power of the Hollywood star system, yet Hollywood doesn’t want to believe that.
Not to mention, the aging action hero concept is not only dying out, but it’s getting to be an ugly retread. The Gunman, in a way, feels like a direct replica of the Kevin Costner aging action hero vehicle 3 Days to Kill that simmered in publicity before anyone got a chance to buy a ticket (though it’s one of the few of the genre very much worth seeing, more so than any Taken installment). From the way Penn’s character passes out and gets overcome with headaches and dizziness and the state of denial his character lives in, The Gunman is very much like the failed clone of that film. The main difference, however, is while the drama in The Gunman feels like a nonsensical, love triangle convention, 3 Days to Kill used its drama as a route of humanization. The “aging action hero” concept has prevented the early retirements and the wealth of endorsement possibilities for people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner, and now Sean Penn, as a means to make a living, but it’s a concept as worn as the joints on all those men.
I feel like erasing my entire review of The Gunman and replacing it with Leonard Maltin’s review of Scooby Doo 2: Monster’s Unleashed, which ranks as one of the shortest film reviews ever written. “It is what it is,” Maltin simply surmised on the film, an oversimplifying statement I try my hardest to avoid in life and in writing, but here, it applies greatly. The Gunman is what you’d expect: the acting is a collection of star-powered mediocrity, the action on display is surprisingly gory, but wholly unsatisfying in the sterile way it is carried out, Frédéric Thoraval’s editing is all over the place, and the themes explored in the film are about as generic as the film’s title. Whether or not you’ll enjoy it depends on how desperate you are to see violence, in which case, I’m sure there’s something on TNT later tonight that will serve your need for an adrenaline rush in a much more effective way, and you won’t have to pay any more than you already are to see it.