It's beyond heartbreaking when wealthy, middle-aged white men can't find work as action heroes, so cheers to French filmmaker Pierre Morel for singlehandedly doing something to address their plight. After announcing his arrival with 2004's entertainingly dumb "District B13," Morel went on to reinvent Liam Neeson's career (2008's "Taken"), then -- well, he kept John Travolta busy for a little while (2010's "From Paris With Love"). Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn is the latest AARP candidate to receive the Morel virility treatment, typically consisting of genre clichés, women as pawns, questionable ethics, and decent action smothered by too much expository chit-chat. And that, in a nutshell, is "The Gunman," another dull, overstuffed thriller about a repentant killer murdering even more people in order to make things right-ish.
Penn stars as Jim Terrier, who we first meet in 2006 as a security advisor for a mining company in the unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo. By day the former Special Forces soldier watches over the aid workers, by night he beds a beautiful doctor named Annie (Italy's Jasmine Trinca, "The Best of Youth"), and by later that night he freelances as a hitman. It's after pulling the trigger on one particularly high-profile assassination that Terrier is forced "into the wind" and out of the country, leaving Annie behind with no explanation. But there are enough furtive glances and dirty looks in the hilariously unsubtle opening scenes to telegraph exactly who's behind Terrier's banishment, and if you've ever seen a talkie before, you'll also figure out why.
Flash-forward eight years: Terrier is back in the Congo, doing humanitarian work of his own, when an attempt on his life sends him around the globe looking for answers from his one-time comrades. Stage legend Mark Rylance plays Cox, Terrier's former boss, now working in a glass-and-steel high-rise doing -- oh, I don't remember; like it matters. And Oscar winner Javier Bardem totally hams it up as Felix, Terrier's obvious frenemy who is now married to Annie, naturally. "I need to find out who wants me dead before they find me again," Terrier helpfully announces, and which he proceeds to do, but embarking on a multinational killing spree in order to save your own guilty ass really doesn't give an audience much on which to hang its collective hat.
One of the credited writers on the screenplay is Penn himself, presumably lending some of his firsthand social-activism knowledge to the 1981 noir source material by the late Jean-Patrick Manchette, but anything he's trying to impart to us just gets lost in the unnecessarily complicated plot and its hackneyed dialogue. Despite its lofty trappings, the film's standard-issue conflict pretty much boils down to who will ultimately get to keep having sex with Annie. Trinca frets and angers very photogenically, yet the question of whether Annie truly matters beyond her gossamer frocks is answered when one Kevlar vest becomes available to them both and Terrier can't strap himself into it fast enough.
Or perhaps that lack of chivalry was just Terrier's brain thingy acting up. The script goes to great lengths to establish a medical impediment for Terrier, its only apparent purpose to prolong scenes that aspire to be tense but just feel dragged out. Fortunately, the location scenery is stunningly lush, shot in far-flung spots like Catalonia and South Africa by Spanish cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. No vista, however, can distract from the crime of wasting the talents of a cast of this caliber, one that also includes British treasures Ray Winstone and Idris Elba, the latter not even speaking until nearly 90 minutes into the film.
And while it shouldn't come as any surprise that Penn does the best he can with what he's given to build upon, the 54-year-old also acquits himself during the heavily edited action sequences, his capable fighting moves rooted in Israeli self-defense techniques known as Krav Maga. But "CGI body?" is something I wrote in my notes, because the man's lived-in face does nothing to prepare one for his impressive biceps and gorgeously muscled torso, which Morel opts to showcase whenever possible. (Another note: "Shower!") Sadly, Penn's marble physique might be the sole highlight of "The Gunman," armed with such firepower but merely shooting blanks.
City spoke with "Ex Machina" director Alex Garland about moving into the director's chair.