Directed by: Pierre Morel
Starring: Sean Penn, Jasmin Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Peter Franzen, Idris Elba
Rated: R for strong violence, language and some sexuality
When most folks think of Sean Penn, they think of his social activism, particularly about Haiti. When most folks think about international espionage thrillers, they think of exotic locations, beautiful people, various forms of combat, and a hero fighting against a big system of some kind. Take these two and mash them together, and you have “The Gunman,” starring Sean Penn: an activist film (although it’s about Congo, not Haiti) which is also a pretty solid international espionage flick.
The story follows Penn’s character, Jim Terrier, who is the titular gunman, a sniper and general contractor for a private military company doing work in the Congo. After he assassinates a government official, he has to leave the continent and essentially go into hiding, abandoning his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) without warning. Years later, an attempt on his life leads him to investigate. Someone is trying to kill off everyone involved in the assassination, and it’s up to Terrier to figure out how to survive.
Penn is a good actor, and he commits 110% to his role here. Terrier is a complicated guy, someone who wants to be a good person but has skills very well suited to bad deeds. His friends, including Stanley (Ray Winstone), care about him, and it’s ultimately his relationships with the other characters that help him get through most of the story. The rest of the cast is good. Trinca isn’t given much to work with, but she handles the material the script gives her well. Javier Bardem is underutilized as a weak and dangerous contact of Terrier’s. Idris Elba has essentially a cameo role, wasted in a mere handful of scenes.
Beyond wasting most of the talented actors in its cast, “The Gunman” has a number of the annoying tropes of its genre, starting with Penn (who is in his fifties) playing someone romantically involved with a character played by Trinca, who is thirty. She’s also defined almost entirely in relation to the men in the story.
Then there’s the film’s politics, which are about as subtle as Penn himself. If you have any doubts that Penn is against military contractors and against huge multinational corporations, this film will erase them. It’s a bit tiresome, especially the bits with newscasters giving us pointed rundowns of events at the beginning and end of the film.
However, the fights are good, the location shooting is impressive, and the film manages to include an unusual hindrance for Terrier (spoilers ahead!) – he has plaque on his brain caused by a lifetime spent around things that make loud bangs and explosions. He struggles with vertigo, vision impairment, and headaches, all of which strike at inconvenient times (for him, at least. Very convenient for the plot, of course).
Overall, “The Gunman” isn’t a great film. Its political message is hammered home no subtlety, and it misses opportunities for greatness. It is, however, a solid, workmanlike film, so if you want to spend a couple of hours enjoying a fairly standard international thriller, it will serve the purpose. If you’re looking for innovation or genuinely suspenseful and unpredictable entertainment, give it a pass.