(MA15+) Directed by Pierre Morel
Starring Sean Penn, Javier Bardem

by Ben McEachen

Berets off, to Pierre Morel. Not only did the French director transform Liam Neeson into The Most Unlikely Post-Milennial Aging Action Hero with vengeance-orgy Taken (2008), he's upped the ante. Morel secured Sean Penn for his latest shoot-out, The Gunman. THE Sean Penn.

Well, that only can mean one thing: The Gunman must be the thinking person's action movie of 2015. Why else would Penn agree to play a retired assassin who is forced back into “the game” when an old assignment comes back to kill him? Plus, The Gunman's backdrop is The Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the planet's most corroded and corrupted tinderboxes of human warfare. A civil and corporate implosion that deserves to be spotlit in a bold, revealing screen treatment.

Despite such tantalising ingredients, The Gunman fires blanks. The big guns of The Penn and The Congo swiftly prove to be squandered. The latter remains firmly in the background, barely touched after it is trotted out as the unusual location for our meeting Jim (Penn). Instead, as you might fear, the Western World's players come to the fore. And stay there, as Special Forces shooter Jim pulls the trigger on a target orchestrated by... political and personal conspiracies. No! Really?

Fast forward eight years, and civilian Jim works for an NGO in the Congo. Until, that is, gun-toting mercenaries show up to end his charitable efforts. Faster than a speeding bullet, The Gunman flees The Congo and provocative subtext, to load up yet another globe-trotting case of hunted/hunter.

Get used to de-ja vu, as Jim tries to sort out why he's become a liability. From inept attackers to suspicious “friends”, accessible intelligence to escaping a farm-house siege that offers no probable escape, The Gunman employs the standard bricks to build a model home of perfunctory double-cross.

The constant sense of disappointment that comes with wasted potential, becomes the viewer's overpowering response. Penn sleepwalks as a one-dimensional killer with mediocre tics. His shot at Mature Action Hero contains many points of potential nuance or novelty. But Penn is only called upon to clench and stare, while his illustrious co-stars also don't offer any clear hint of why they joined this staid enterprise. Javier Bardem is the jealous schemer; Idris Elba is the spectating agent; and Ray Winstone is a tepid version of Ray Winstone. All three inclusions, like Penn, have their gravitas dulled by the underdone thriller Morel has cooked up.

As with Taken, Morel again has tried to justify violence with glimpses of moral outrage or social conscience. But more than Taken's shameless bloodlust, The Gunman deeply offends in its use of real-world pain and anguish. The final straw is how a concluding summation actually tries to bring the Congo to the fore. An offensive attempt at depth, merely serving to reinforce the shallow exploits that preceded it.

This review was originally published in Rolling Stone, April 2015. See it here.