The past catches up with retired hitman Jim Terrier (Penn) when a trio of killers turn up to interrupt his humanitarian work in Africa. Escaping with his life, Terrier reluctantly takes up arms once more to smoke out his assailants.
When Pierre Morel thrust a 56 year-old Liam Neeson onto the mean streets of Paris in 2008’s Taken, it’s doubtful he realised quite what he’d unleashed on the world. Now, after we’ve seen Brosnan, Washington and the cast of three Expendables movies tool up, Morel (the Godfather of the geriaction genre) tries to recapture his rainmaker status with The Gunman, a film already dubbed Taken With Sean Penn.
In truth it’s a far more traditional thriller, (loosely) drawn from the pages of French author Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel, La Position du Tireur Couché (retitled The Prone Gunman for the English-speaking market). The 52 year-old Penn is a former killer, wrestling with the demons of his younger, hairier-lipped self after having blown a sizeable hole in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Minister for Mining some years before. Hopping from the DRC to London to Barcelona, Penn picks apart the conspiracy with dogged perseverance, busting out an impressively honed physique with sweaty regularity. Wracked with guilt, Terrier is a conflicted, complicated protagonist, given laser-beam focus thanks to Penn’s trademark intensity.
The supporting players fare less well, though. Javier Bardem lumbers through stodgy dialogue like he’s been asked to go jogging in flippers, all but skywriting his villainous intent from the film’s opening scene. Morel has lost none of his feel for close-range carnage, staging an assortment of memorable clashes that range from a shovel versus machete dust-up to an unlikely stand-off in a burning wet room. Penn is convincingly no-nonsense as a one-man wrecking ball, helped along by quick-edits and enthusiastic camerawork rather than elaborate choreography. Kill ratio and pyrotechnics can’t quite make up for the simplistic story, though. Moreover, for a film with such a thinly worked conspiracy, The Gunman is inexplicably hard to follow, relying on lack of clarity to disguise by-the-numbers plotting. Still, if you’re in the market for some well-wrought mayhem, you could certainly do a lot worse.
Sub-Ludlum plotting but stylishly executed, this offers a fun night out but is far from a nailed-on franchise-starter.