By Ellery Nick
The jibes had already been circulating that after resurrecting Liam Neeson for 2008’s Taken, director Pierre Morel was once again embroiled in the dark arts – having dug up a new middle-aged cadaver to be put to good use in the bone-crunching world of international espionage and quickly assembled guns.
The other question was how would a political animal such a Sean Penn fair in the physically precarious world of an action thriller? We need not have wondered, from the first minute with its stark montage of news reports, The Gunman sets out to establish its real interests. This is no ordinary shoot-em up, as the title so cleverly bluffs, no, the guns are here only to garland its true purpose of bringing to light the meddling influence of western commerce in corrupt African nations. This is a project then well in keeping with Penn’s sense of social activism, of digging wells and plucky NGOs. Sadly any discussion about global interference and atonement fail to make more than a cursory appearance as the story unfolds. Let there be no doubt, this is an action flick, this is a GI Joe planted by a child in a pot of sustainably sourced avocado oil.
Instead, Sean Penn’s physique takes centre stage as his regretful ex-mercenary – Jim Terrier is called upon to bend over a variety of sinks without his top on. Foggy-eyed, a face of inch-thick leather and nicely groomed eyebrows, at times I felt we were watching an undiscovered member of Aerosmith steeling himself backstage.
Unlike, say, Matthias Schoenearts in Rust and Bone, the emotional complexity that Penn tries to merit his hero results in confusion rather than depth. Penn may well emerge as one of the most sensitive tough guys in the business – the brows of his Terrier never cease to arch and there’s an enduring prospect of watery eyes. If so they water for his past, because there’s violence in our world, sunsets. The miracle is that Terrier has ever been able to hold his place in a queue, let alone his own amongst a braying pack of ruthlessly trained killers. At one point, whilst visiting his friend Stan, played by Ray Winston, some east-end football hooligans knock over Stan’s pint and when Terrier duly knocks them to smithereens I all but gasped. Jim, what’s all this?
Aside from Ray Winstone who has distractingly nice fair hair, the film is helped along by a meaty cast. There’s dastardly Felix played by Javier Bardem who steals our hero’s girl and the life he should have led. So many years wasted provided security assistance to the people of Congo. Get your own, Bardem!
Appearing late on, Idris Elba trades in the needless faff of character formation for an ostentatious lighter that he periodically flicks. Although his time with us is limited, Elba does go someway to relieving the choking sequence of hammy antics and allows us to draw a breath or two as we gaze at his dazzlingly white shirt, a shirt without contour, without velocity. And then he’s gone.
Mark Rylance also does us all a good turn as slippery ex-comrade Cox who, obsessed with eliminating anyone that might reveal his questionable past, solves this conundrum by waving a gun in the air and chasing down witnesses in front of several hundred people at a bullfight. Hire more thugs, Mark. That’s what they’re for. Stay at home with a cup of camomile tea and wait for the phone call.
Trying to nuzzle in somewhere between Bourne and The Constant Gardener, The Gunman doesn’t come close to matching either, but nevertheless remains jostling good fun. The fight scenes are battering to watch and the bullets thunder and zing in a way that would make Schwarzenegger gunfire seem like fuffs of air from a waterpistol without any water in it. This may be a mercenary tale without a higher purpose, but does nicely with the low.
The Gunman is on general release on March 20th.