“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.