Film Review: ‘The Gunman’

The Gunman Sean Penn

Sean Penn's odd attempt to refashion himself as a middle-aged action hero won't give Liam Neeson any sleepless nights.

“The Guns, Man” might have been a more apt title for “The Gunman,” given how much of Pierre Morel’s latest passport-brandishing shoot-’em-up is dedicated to showcasing Sean Penn’s unexpectedly ripped physique. Sadly, Penn’s veiny, sweat-glazed biceps are the most objectively impressive feature of this rote, humorless thriller, a distinctly unconvincing attempt to refashion the star — who also co-wrote and produced — as a middle-aged action hero in the Liam Neeson mold. Covering similar stylistic territory to Morel’s megahit “Taken,” with notional political context tacked on to fit its leading man’s public persona, this curious blend of exploitation pic and vanity project certainly won’t be inaugurating an equivalent franchise, but may hit its target in ancillary.

It’s been 10 years since two-time Oscar winner Penn last headlined a multiplex-ready genre pic (Sydney Pollack’s comparatively upscale “The Interpreter,” co-starring Nicole Kidman), but there’s no precedent in his career for one quite like “The Gunman,” which puts the 54-year-old actor through repeated bouts of violent, frequently shirtless badassery. Prior to the release of “Taken,” Neeson was a similarly unlikely candidate for tough-guy reinvention, though he had mass-franchise credentials and took to B-movie stardom with a gravelly presence and deadpan wit that Penn, for all his physical and thespian prowess, can’t quite muster here. When the imposingly charismatic Idris Elba pops up in a long-teased but perfunctory supporting role in the pic’s second half, it’s hard not to think both actors might have been better off swapping roles.

“I don’t want to do this s— any more,” complains Penn’s Special Forces soldier-turned-assassin Jim Terrier — a character name that could hardly be more patently writer-devised if it were Jack Russell. Whether the allusion to Danny Glover’s deathless “Lethal Weapon” catchphrase is intentional, or merely indicative of “The Gunman’s” paucity of fresh ideas, Terrier’s stone-faced weariness makes him an oddly difficult figure to root for. Penn has always excelled playing damaged human figures; perhaps his hand in the script (which he co-adapted, with Don MacPherson and Pete Travis, from a 1981 pulp novel by Frenchman Jean-Patrick Manchette) accounts for the degree of moral compromise in Terrier, a well-meaning liberal atoning for corrupt acts in his past. Yet in presenting the character as both a fundamentally flawed hero and a rule-busting daredevil who literally goes surfing in unsafe waters — cue our first extended gaze at Penn’s brick-built torso — the star and filmmakers seek to have it both ways. This unhappy balance between right-on realism and heightened derring-do goes for the film at large.

A none-too-authentic-looking Democratic Republic of Congo provides the backdrop for a 2006-set prologue: Terrier and a group of European ex-military associates have been paid by an unspecified authority to execute the country’s minister of mining. As the designated trigger, Terrier is forced to flee the country after successfully carrying out the mission, leaving behind his (naturally) decades-younger g.f., Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who is unaware of the plot. In the wake of the assassination, the country is plunged into a civil war: Needless to say, “The Gunman” is entirely blithe in its fabrication of Third World history.

Eight years later, Terrier is back in the Congo, mildly PTSD-afflicted and worthily digging wells for an NGO. Though his mercenary days are behind him, other parties aren’t willing to forgive and forget: After narrowly escaping an attempt on his life, he jets back to London, enlisting the help of grizzled comrade Stanley (Ray Winstone, on standard Cockney-geezer setting) to identify his attackers. His investigation also leads him to estranged colleagues Cox (Mark Rylance), now a suit working for their former contractors, and Felix (Javier Bardem, dripping smarm and hair oil), a wily Barcelona-based businessman with a range of stakes in Africa.  To Terrier’s greater consternation, he has also coerced a reluctant Annie — an intelligent professional woman with, apparently, no romantic agency of her own — into marriage.

From this setup, the action skips through a predictable succession of standoffs and shootouts across Spain and Gibraltar — directed with anonymous efficiency by Morel, albeit rather more distinctively scored by a typically zealous Marco Beltrami. While glossily shot on location in Spain, South Africa and England by Flavio Labiano, the film’s larger setpieces don’t always exploit their scenic backdrops as creatively as they might — though a climactic chase through Barcelona’s iconic La Monumental bullfighting ring does take the beast by the horns, so to speak. (A closing-credits caveat acknowledging the city’s 2012 ban on the sport further shows up the dated material.)

With every principal player turning out to have more or less the precise agenda viewers will have suspected from the beginning, the supporting cast goes strictly through the motions. Though he enjoys second billing, Elba appears only at the 77-minute mark as an Interpol agent of initially ambiguous allegiance. His snappy presence is welcome, though he’s burdened with some of the film’s most cumbersome scripting — chiefly a tortuous sustained metaphor about treehouses and termites that he and Penn lurch through with unaccountably straight faces. Potentially electrifying supporting players like Rylance and Bardem are given few notes to play that merely capable journeymen could not; in her first English-language film, the usually luminous Trinca can’t inject much gumption into a role that amounts to little more than passive ornamentation for the protagonist.

For “The Gunman” has been conceived as Penn’s film through and through, no matter how uncomfortably he carries it. Every move that a George Clooney might rakishly pull off — say, stealing a blazer from the back of a stranger’s chair en route to a dinner date — Penn makes seem borderline sociopathic. It’s his singular intensity and eccentricity as a performer that lends this otherwise form-following throwaway what unusual angles it has, yet that’s also the reason the film fails to work on its own beef-brained terms. “Take care of your mind,” a doctor warns Terrier midway through the narrative; it’s sound advice, too, for the star, whose notable prior credits behind the camera make this self-developed vehicle all the more surprising at this stage in an illustrious career.

Film Review: 'The Gunman'

Reviewed at Dolby Screening Rooms, London, Feb. 26, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.


(U.K.-France-Spain) An Open Road Films (in U.S.)/Studiocanal (in U.K.) release of a Studiocanal presentation of a Silver Pictures production, in co-production with Nostromo Pictures, Prone Gunman Prods., TF1 Films Prod., in association with Anton Capital Entertainment. (International sales: Studiocanal, London.) Produced by Andrew Rona, Sean Penn, Ron Halpern. Executive producers, Peter McAleese, Steve Richards, Olivier Courson, Aaron Auch, Adrian Guerra. Co-producers, Alex Heineman, Adam Kuhn, Joel Silver.


Directed by Pierre Morel. Screenplay, Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn, adapted from the novel "The Prone Gunman" by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Camera (color, widescreen), Flavio Labiano; editor, Frederic Thoraval; music, Marco Beltrami; music supervisor, Jerome Lateur; production designer, Andrew Laws; art director, Stuart Kearns; set decorator, Silvia Steinbrecht; costume designer, Jill Taylor; sound (Dolby Atmos), Colin Nicolson; supervising sound editors, Rob Prynne, Paul Carter; re-recording mixers, Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor; visual effects supervisor, Stuart Lashley; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinator, Markos Rounthwaite; associate producer, Stephen Bender; line producer, Sally French; assistant director, Raymond Kirk; second unit director, Markos Rounthwaite; second unit camera, Juan Miguel Azpiroz; casting, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.


Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Peter Franzen, Ade Oyefeso, David Blakeley, Daniel Adegboyega, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Sarah Moyle, Rachel Lascar. (English dialogue)

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  1. MIKE BOGART says:


  2. Michelle says:

    I think this was very harsh. It’s an action movie, and I enjoyed it for what it was. I was disappointed that Idris Elba only played a cameo role, but overall I thought it was fine for the genre it represents. If you are not into action and enjoy seeing a really ripped body you can enjoy some of that too :-)

  3. Tripp says:

    I think it was a great movie! Just a few things caught my eye with the flash bang and the claymore. The movie advisor for military stuff was probabally some cook. If your going to have ” special forces ” or mercenary type movie, use an ex special forces or PMC like me advising your movie or guys like me will notice everything which makes the movie les believable. Critics are talking about Penn not beig “humorous” IT WASNT A HUMOROUS MOVIE, and it isn’t Fast times! Sean Penn was great and did an awesome job.

  4. I think this is a harsh account of this movie. It is definitely a love story, and Sean Penn’s veiny biceps are illustrious throughout the movie…not something to balk at. So what he’s 54–don’t we all want to keep our youth!!

  5. jj says:

    Don’t like his politics, don’t watch his movies…nuff said

  6. RVEE says:

    What is the saying in the street “Punk Bitch”? That’s what Sean Penn is!
    Sean Penn has no business playing roles with any military theme. He is an insult to all those who served in American forces.
    Penn is passe!
    Hollywood is desperate!

    Love to run into this punk on the street sometime.
    I’ll Tell him about war, pain and PTS.
    A RECON guy from Nam

  7. Jim says:

    Review is spot on. Saw it yesterday.
    Sucked in by trailer and totally underwhelmed.

  8. No surprise the movie turned out so crappy considering that Hugo Chavez’s biggest fan is starring in it.

  9. SPY says:

    another Hollywood HYPOCRITE

  10. Kezia says:

    Penn? Who cares. I’ll see it because Idris and Javier are in it.

  11. Eric says:

    Penn is one of three actors who’s films I have decided to boycott since they all three have come out against guns, yet continue to make films involving the use of guns. Liam Neeson and Jamie Foxx are the other two. They are all three sellout hypocrites.

  12. the SMFIC says:

    Ah yes, quotable commie, anti-freedom from dictators Sean Penn re-emerges from his self-imposed but universally loved decade long hiatus to pose as………gun-toting everyman killer? Huh? Did this moron get the irony in that and just ignore it for a paycheck?

  13. Jeff says:

    Do not support this anti second amendment hypocrite.

  14. what a hypocrite Penn is,goes on an anti gun tyraide and then stars in a movie called the gunman..If you want to be a liberal anti gunner then why make movies about them,..Oh wait I know,MONEY !

  15. Macd says:

    Sean Penn’s career has always been a mystery to me. Moviegoers avoid his films like the plague, and the few times I had to deal with the surly little snot are not among my fondest memories. However, this misbegotten attempt to fashion himself into a brawny middle-aged action star seems destined to provide one thing — unintentional hilarity.

    • dhql says:

      As far as Sean Penn’s career was the first action hero of the water

      5 times the Academy nominations and two Academy Awards in Venice, Berlin and Cannes best actor Winner Award

      Due to the small delay in the film mainly received in spin art films

      This career is a mystery to you

      • Corey says:

        The academy award is an award without integrity. They’re so political and biased you have to be an associate colleague of the inner hollywood circle just to get one. I find it grossly ironic that Sean Penn is the one who was chosen to drop the bomb on Clint Eastwood at the academy awards best picure announcement where ‘American Sniper’ was the elephant in the room, by saying, ‘It’s not about box office numbers..’. Then has the nerve to cast himself as a Navy Seal. Absurdly insulting. So what if he was nominated or even won? What box office numbers did he break or set in his career, EVER? Oh, yeah. None!

        And the box office is where you’re relevance is proven. Period.

      • Kay says:

        What is a mystery to me is why he didn’t get the Chris Brown treatment after a documented domestic abuse episode, and all the other violent outbursts he had, the late not as far as a year ago, smashing a fan’s phone who took a pic of him at a public place. Hollywood is all bout connections and powerful friends, ad so are Awards.

      • Victor Snifalotapus says:

        He makes artsy fartsy garbage nobody likes but gets lots of accolades from smug movie critics other celebrities and people like dhql.

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