One and a half stars (out of four)
R (strong violence, language, some sexuality)
I suppose we have “Taken” to thank for reigniting interest in testosterone-laden action flicks in which women are little more than objects to be rescued.
A “Taken” wannabe that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be serious or over the top, “The Gunman” raises this antiquated cinematic trope to troubling new levels of obliviousness.
Sean Penn plays an assassin, posing as a security contractor, who falls in love with an impossibly beautiful aid worker in the Congo (Jasmine Trinca). Annie — even her name implies childlike helplessness — speaks with an alluring Italian accent. Her hair is perfectly tousled, even when she’s pulling an all-nighter at the local medical clinic.
She and Penn’s character, Jim, appear to have little in common — “He’s a hard man,” she tells a friend who questions her taste in boyfriends — but she spends her free time waiting around for him anyway, ready to hop into bed at a moment’s notice. Afterward, she gazes pensively out the window, clad only in a white button-down shirt that highlights her glorious legs.
There are a lot of other things going on in “The Gunman.” Too many things, actually. But director Pierre Morel, the French filmmaker who not-so-coincidentally helmed “Taken,” is inordinately preoccupied with Annie’s suffering and humiliation.
Despite Jim’s professed passion, he is responsible for the increasingly preposterous catastrophes that befall her. During the course of the film, Annie is abandoned, manhandled or worse, passed back and forth like a trophy between Jim and a colleague/rival (Javier Bardem), relentlessly pursued, captured, drugged and in constant need of rescue. The camera lingers on her, trussed like a chicken on the floor, blouse slipping off her shoulders.
Annie’s primary reaction to these circumstances is to fall apart at every turn. The only decisive, independent action she takes is a sexual one and, though she plays a part in the villain’s demise at the end of the film, it is almost entirely accidental. This woman is the insulting epitome of the mindless, passive damsel in distress who has no place in modern cinema.
Penn apparently helped screenwriters Don MacPherson and Pete Travis pen the script for “The Gunman” — working from a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette — so he is at least partially to blame for this antiquated character. Would someone please introduce him to the concept of the Bechdel Test?
The irony is that “The Gunman” could function decently — indeed, it would be a better film — without the presence of Annie.
The premise is promising, if unoriginal: Ex-Special Forces sniper Jim participates in the assassination of a government minister, whose death plunges the Congo into chaos. Guilt-ridden, he disappears for eight years, before trading wet work for aid work and returning to the Congo, where he becomes the target of heavily armed mercenaries.
To find out who wants him dead, Jim must globe trot to London and Barcelona, confronting his former partners in crime, including point man Felix, played by Bardem, still oozing the scenery-chewing hamminess he exhibited to greater effect in “The Counselor” and “Skyfall.”
Like Liam Neeson in Morel’s aforementioned film, Jim possesses a particular set of skills, resulting in several brutal set pieces, including scenes at an aquarium and a bull ring that should be more thrilling than they ultimately are. In the latter sequence, Morel gracelessly juxtaposes images of Penn and the slaughter of a great, horned beast.
Jim has an Achilles heel, a disorienting mental affliction that makes his vengeful mission all the more grueling. So “The Gunman” is basically “The Bourne Identity” with the extreme violence, silliness and international slumming-it of the “Taken” franchise.
At the film’s halfway mark, Jim jets to Spain, where Bardem sulks drunkenly in an opulent luxury mansion and a lipstick red vintage getaway car conveniently waits in a nearby barn. That’s about the time the movie begins to feel like a James Bondian vanity project.
Penn obviously took this role seriously, a little too seriously perhaps. Buffed up to proportions that would elicit the envy of men decades younger, he’s all desperation and intensity, but this attempt at action stardom is a strange fit. Neeson doesn’t have anything to worry about.
Morel surrounds Penn with a pedigreed ensemble, including Ray Winstone and celebrated British stage actor Mark Rylance, but they’re mostly wasted or miscast.
You know something is off when the excellent Idris Elba shows up in a single scene and all he gets to do is monologue about tree houses.