The situation during 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo was not healthy at all, with a war going on which was exacerbated by the conflict over who had control of the mining of precious metals that the West craved. In the region, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, was a group of Westerners including Terrier (Sean Penn) and his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca): she was on a medical team, but he was part of a more shadowy organisation along with Cox (Mark Rylance) who was plainly there for nothing but the money it would earn him. Annie’s colleague Felix (Javier Bardem) had designs on her which would come to fruition when Terrier’s plans had dire consequences for the region…
The Gunman was Sean Penn’s entry into the ageing geezers action flick genre which had truly taken off when Liam Neeson opened the door to those older stars seeking a macho role to play, but it was not well-received, in fact it was largely ignored at the box office, in spite of being sold as an action movie with a brain in its head. However, on watching it this turned out to be parading a social conscience, yet with no more weight to its hero’s behaviour than your average Chuck Norris vehicle, indeed there was a definite sense that with Penn’s backing (he had a hand in the script as well as the production) what he had ended up with was merely a left wing version of a customarily right wing form of entertainment.
This had been done before, sometimes with notable successes, but Penn chose to hew so close to the clichés, perhaps a result of hiring Pierre Morel who had experience in the less thoughtful side of the form, that after an introduction which more or less told us “We want you to take this very seriously” the rest was a dull slog through globetrotting location work and the occasional opportunity for the leading man to flex his muscles and beat people up. He had prided himself on casting some fine thesps to back himself up, notably theatre great Mark Rylance, yet as the story wore in it was clear he wanted to punch them in the face on screen to prove himself the most forceful personality in acting around, rather than doing so with his creative talent. This was far from the finest way to watch some very decent actors kowtow to the will of Sean Penn, and became almost comical in its one-upmanship, though actresses didn’t get much of a look-in, maybe because Penn couldn’t punch them and remain supposedly sympathetic.
Nevertheless, he does smash one woman’s head in, but it’s meant to be OK since she was a baddie, though the only really prominent female role went to Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, who no matter Penn’s self-proclaimed right on credentials was merely a whining presence reduced to being pushed around as a trophy for Terrier (what kind of a name is that, incidentally?), and even being kidnapped during the final act in the umpteenth example of just about the only use action movies had for women, that was getting the bad guys to hold her for ransom then having the good guy rescue her in the most violent manner he can. If this was the filmmakers’ idea of progressive 21st century tension and spectacle, they were sorely mistaken.
Anyway, Terrier is on the run because he assassinated the Congolese Minister for Mining back in 2006, and we catch up with him in the present day when he is performing good works, still in Africa, until a gang of heavies show up and threaten to kill him. Well, they do their level best, but their target is a superman who makes short work of them, though is very perturbed that he now has a reason to call up some old contacts and inquire what is up and who is after him, including Ray Winstone who Terrier meets in a London pub, offering the star the chance to thump some football hooligans to further prove his tough guy credentials. But oh dear, he gets a headache after this exertion and it is revealed he has a brain condition that could kill him, but obviously doesn’t, nor does it inhibit his ability to murder people. Finishing with a finale set at a bullfight, intercutting the heroism of Terrier with the bloodsport, all The Gunman proved was that a sense of humour might not have gone amiss if you’re trying to reinvent the action movie. Music by Marco Beltrami.