Directed by: Pierre Morel
Premise: Amidst the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mercenary (Sean Penn) assassinates a cabinet minister on behalf of a foreign mining company. Years later the hitman is a target of those attempting to cover up the operation.
What Works: The cast of The Gunman is led by Sean Penn in the title role and Penn does this kind of violent and brooding character pretty well. He has the ability to perform the violence while also giving the character a degree of humanity that’s quite different from the heroes of most shoot-’em-up movies. The Gunman also features Javier Bardem as one of the operators that Penn’s character must reconnect with and Bardem injects a lot of energy into his scenes. In the latter part of the movie, Bardem’s character has become quite wealthy and manages his own company but he is also an alcoholic and Bardem plays intoxicated very well while allowing the character’s underlying guilt to seep out. The Gunman has been conceived in the mold of thrillers from the 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of Condor and it generally succeeds in replicating the feel of those movies. Within the contemporary movie marketplace, The Gunman is notable in that it is a grown up and intelligent story. Superheroes and sex comedies are fine but there’s been a lack of titles aimed at mature audiences and this movie does that while fulfilling most of the expectations of a contemporary action movie.
What Doesn’t: The Gunman has a few inherent problems that it is never able to overcome. The primary flaw of the movie is that it lacks urgency. It is never clear what is at stake. We know that Penn’s character is a target but the film does not have an impending sense of danger and there aren’t larger consequences if he is killed. This is amplified by the lack of empathy for Penn’s character. He’s introduced as a guy who has killed people on behalf of commercial interests. In short, he is established as a bad guy and the filmmakers don’t rehabilitate him in such a way that the audience will care if he survives. We do learn that the assassination carried out by Penn’s character exacerbated the violence of the civil war and resulted in a lot of Congolese people perishing in the conflict and that leads to another problem. The Gunman is another movie taking place in Africa among a significant event in African history that manages to be all about white American and European characters. Granted, the movie is about the conspiracy among those people to disrupt Congolese life and the guilt that they harbor over it but The Gunman does very little to alter that trend. One of the B-storylines of The Gunman is a romantic subplot between Sean Penn’s character and a relief worker played by Jasmine Trinca. Like everything else in the movie, the filmmakers don’t create very compelling stakes for the love story and it is complicated by some illogical plotting. In the opening, Trinca and Penn’s characters are together but he must flee after the assassination and they don’t communicate for eight years. If they were truly in love with each other it makes no sense that he would just cut off contact but if they weren’t madly in love then the resumption of their relationship is not credible either. Actress Jasmine Trinca is generally wasted in her role. She’s a good actress but she just isn’t given anything interesting to do and she spends a lot of the movie running or crying as the men threaten her or come to her rescue. Lastly, The Gunman misses the mark in its aspirations to 1970s political thrillers. Part of what made those movies unsettling was their downbeat endings. The conclusion of The Gunman is too neat and that undermines the political punch that the filmmakers are trying to deliver.
Bottom Line: Despite its considerable problems, The Gunman is a satisfactory piece of entertainment. It’s not great, it does not say much about geopolitics, nor does it measure up to the titles that it aspires to but as a thriller in the vein of a Liam Neeson shoot-’em-up, the movie is a competent action picture.
Episode: #536 (April 5, 2015)