By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — He has a pair of Oscars in his back pockets: one for 2003’s Mystic River, one for 2008’s Milk.
But that’s not stopping the critically admired Sean Penn from following in the footsteps of Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon, Kevin Costner, and Keanu Reeves, and signing on as a thinking man’s middle-aged action hero in a revenge thriller smack-dab in the middle of a sparkling acting career.
In the action flick The Gunman, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a dogged Special Forces agent attempting to retire and redeem himself.
But because the authorities at The Agency (and who the heck knows exactly who they are, anyway?) decides that eliminating him altogether makes more sense than letting him call it quits, he goes on the run, where events will, not surprisingly, conspire to give the action-craving members of the audience the cathartic “avenging angel on a killing spree” they so desire.
In the 2006 prologue, Terrier lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his physician girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), where, on the surface, he works for a security task force protecting mining operations.
But he also operates as a mercenary hit man.
An associate, Felix (played by Javier Bardem), who seems to have more than a passing interest in Annie, assigns Terrier to assassinate the country’s minister of mining (Cliff Curtis).
So he and a group of ex-military associates, with Terrier functioning as the “designated trigger,” take on the mission and do indeed execute the minister, after which the guilt-ridden Terrier leaves Annie behind and flees the country, which is then plunged into a civil war, and heads for London and Barcelona.
Eight years later, Terrier returns to Africa with at least a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder, with the intention of digging wells, helping the locals mine for themselves, and perhaps doing a little casual surfing.
But he’s got enemies, and they come looking for him.
He manages to sidestep an assassination attempt, but realizes that he’s in danger for reasons connected to his mission those eight years ago.
So, the ex-mercenary investigates, hoping to find out just who has put out a hit on the hitman himself.
Among the possibilities are Barnes, an Interpol agent (played by Idris Elba) who ostensibly wants to help Terrier; Stanley, an aging gun-for-hire (Ray Winstone); and Cox, another former hitman (Mark Rylance), who has gone straight.
Penn, who also served as a co-writer and one of the seven producers, put on quite a bit of muscle for the role, and his director, Pierre Morel, is quick to show off — vanity projects being what they are — how much more powerful a ripped Penn is than the sword.
Morel (District B13, From Paris with Love) provided a similar service -– without the frequent shirtlessness — for Neeson when he directed him in Taken, which launched a franchise for the Oscar-nominated lead in Schindler’s List and turned him into an action icon.
Full of explosions, shootouts, and combat, The Gunman is based on the 1981 pulp novel The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, and was adapted by screenwriters Don MacPherson and Pete Travis, along with Penn.
As convoluted conspiracy tales go, it’s pretty much standard issue, but it’s unnecessarily humorless, takes itself much too seriously, and includes an awkward love-triangle subplot that simply fails to convince.
That Penn is an exemplary actor has never been in doubt, and it isn’t now, but he seems more or less miscast here. And he’s unable in this case to erase that impression.
So we’ll assassinate 2 stars out of 4. There’s plenty of gun in The Gunman, but not enough man.