March 18 2015 03:09 PM

Pierre Morel's new action film stars Sean Penn as a reformed government contractor haunted by his past

Sean Penn

Sean Penn tries to do his best Liam Neeson impression in The Gunman, a bloody and self-serious action saga about an aging military contractor turned NGO worker being hunted by one of his former employers. The film is even directed by Pierre Morel, whose Taken initiated a new sub-genre of lean B-movies centered on the brooding Neeson-archetype wreaking havoc all over Europe and Africa.

Unfortunately, The Gunman contains none of the pulpy energy and playful kinetics often found in Neeson's best work with Jaume Collet-Serra and Joe Carnahan.

Much of this can be attributed to the sluggish issue-based plot bluntly critiquing everything from corruption to the colonialism that begins in the Congo and eventually spills over to London, Barcelona and Gibraltar. Penn's veteran killer, Jim Terrier, assassinates a progressive Congolese government official in order to protect his clandestine security firm and its vested interests in multiple mining corporations profiting from civil war. Forced to leave the country and end his relationship with a noble doctor named Annie (Jasmine Trinca), Jim decides to retire from the murder game and start anew as a born-again activist. Eight years later, his past comes to collect.

Nods to political and social injustice pop up as Jim investigates why he's suddenly marked for death. One of his old war buddies, a man named Cox (Mark Rylance) working in London as the head of a massive security outfit, spells it out: "I went from killer to cashier." Money drives almost every plot point in The Gunman, a fact that produces a rather low-stakes game of ideological chicken, clearly dividing Jim's violent righteousness and the shady dealings of his former compatriots. This rings especially false while he's matching eerily forced lines of dialogue with his former boss, Felix (Javier Bardem), a drunken fool who initiated Jim's exile so many years before simply to get his girl.

In a blatant attempt to increase uncertainty and tension, the script (adapted by from a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette) contains a sub-plot involving Jim's post-concussion syndrome thanks to his many years around loud booms. Conveniently, he gets stinging headaches at the most inopportune times, usually when a bad guy stands over him with a gun. When Morel is freed from this silly convention and allowed to shoot action freely, the results are often liberating. One extended sequence in which a bunch of trained assassins lays siege to a Spanish country villa housing Jim and Annie is consistently propulsive. The violence is sudden and shocking, making more of a political statement than any of the left-leaning, sanctimonious dialogue does.

With this motif in mind, it's fitting that The Gunman concludes within the cavernous confines of a bull-fighting coliseum. Here, Morel and Penn take the carnage to another level, even using the raging instinct of a horned animal to dispatch a key villain. All of this reactionary violence feels necessary to the quickly paced chase scenes that hold a nervous energy, but it stands in direct contrast to Jim and Annie's incessant proselytizing about humanitarianism and equal rights.

Overall, this makes The Gunman, which opens Friday, March 20, a sort of cinematic Frankenstein, part bare-knuckle bruiser and part bleeding-heart liberal. This cocktail of diverging tones always feels contradictory.

Penn's strained performance doesn't help; he's often saved by sharing the screen with smooth operators played by Ray Winstone and Idris Elba, who at least look like they're having a good time working within this universe.

Morel's film ends tritely and conventionally despite its desire to be something profound. With a title like The Gunman, one might expect a Spartan genre throwback in the vein of Budd Boetticher's westerns or Sam Fuller's war films. No dice. Penn and Morel's wooden effort crams multiple credos about the importance of peace down the throat of a story that's more interested in the visceral imagery made from gaping war wounds. Talk about mixed messages.

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