"Yeah, you'd better go get a shower."
Passion projects are often considered as such for a reason: Nobody beyond one or two people wants to make them. More often than not, they turn out to be disastrous miscalculations on the part of the person lobbying tirelessly for the film to be made, and forever become synonymous with that person's greatest failure. For examples of this see—or rather, don't—John Travolta & Battlefield Earth, Barry Levinson & Toys, and virtually everything George Lucas has done that's not Star Wars & Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Gunman is perhaps the most surprising passion project imaginable for Sean Penn, an actor known more for his thoughtful, introspective work and his outspoken liberalism than for beefcake shoot 'em ups. Yet here we are, staring down the barrel of Penn's passion project, and not knowing if it's going to blow us away or simply make a lot of noise with no actual impact.
I'm sad to say that it falls much more into that latter camp than the former, though the film is shockingly not a total waste of time, effort, and resources. It doesn't really work, and the final twenty minutes are so laughably preposterous, they seem to part of an elaborate prank on Penn's part, but it's watchable, mildly compelling, and filled with some deliriously hammy work from Javier Bardem. As Jim Terrier, an elite special forces assassin, Penn put on some major league muscles, amped up the machismo, and cranked the tanning bed to just one notch below George Hamilton. Terrier's a bad dude, but his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) doesn't know that. She thinks he's just a caring, humanitarian hunk with a killer 'stache, but he's simply masquerading as one while actually working as a killer for hire in the Congo.
Bardem & Mark Rylance are the only two men working with Penn given anything beyond a name, and they facilitate an assassination that requires Penn to get off the continent of Africa, leaving Annie behind. 8 years later, Terrier has returned to the Congo hoping to find Annie, but she has moved on and so to must he, now actually working as a humanitarian to atone for his sins. When some soldiers come looking for Jim and attempt to kill him, his training kicks in and he disposes of them. He then travels to see both Bardem & Rylance, looking for answers as to who might want him dead, and finding out that Annie has now shacked up with Bardem, a move that's so absurdly telegraphed, it's laughable that they attempt to make this a revelation at all.
The film's set-up isn't bad, but its insistence on treating everything like a mystery really bogs down its narrative. There's a dearth of characters that could have been behind this assassination attempt, so the film's attempts to make the reveals into surprising moments all fall flat. A number of other subplots—such as one involving a neurodegenerative illness from which Terrier is suffering—are also jettisoned completely until the plot needs them to kick back in again so suspense can be wrought from the action sequences. It's a competently made film with action that is mostly easy to follow and often ends in the most violent fashion imaginable, but it's not really an action film, which makes its non-action sequences suffer greatly as a result.
Pierre Morel is a director that really knows how to shoot action, but anytime his characters are just sitting around talking, all the momentum drains out of the film. In fact, the craft is so poor in these sequences, typically consisting of nothing more than the standard shot/reverse shot formula of filmmaking 101, dialogue scenes that should crackle because of the caliber of actor involved in them limp along with nothing to hold an audience's interest. Penn shares a number of one-on-one dialogue driven scenes with Bardem, Rylance, Idris Elba (in a glorified cameo), and Ray Winstone, and every single one of them is thoroughly unmemorable and completely interchangeable.
It's also nothing short of a crime that Penn's character is by far the least interesting character in the film. In an attempt to make him someone that plays everything close to the vest, Penn fails to infuse his character with any sort of empathy, forcing the audience to simply root for him by default. While this isn't necessarily his fault as an actor, mainly because the character is so poorly written, it's truly mind boggling that he would be attracted to this role, other than to show off how good he looks in a variety of shirtless scenes, including perhaps the most gratuitous surfing scene ever put on film. Penn will no doubt rebound from this, as he always does in his off years, but this whole thing feels like a gross miscalculation on his part.
The supporting cast around him is not only having more fun than him, they're given much more interesting characters to play. Bardem goes from zero to Pacino in an instant, deliriously overacting in a number of scenes and loving every second of doing so. Rylance is also a lot of fun despite the fact that he comes off at times like a low-rent Bond villain and SPOILER ALERT is given the most unintentionally hilarious death I've seen since a cgi Brad Pitt got bounced between two cars in Meet Joe Black. Ray Winstone shows up as well, playing essentially the exact same character that Willem Dafoe just played in John Wick, right down to an identical final scene, but he's another actor that compulsively watchable and enjoyable.
The Gunman is ultimately as inessential as films can get. It's not flat-out terrible, and honestly couldn't be given the cast assembled, but it feels so disposable that I can't imagine anyone wanting to sit through it a second time. It's got a number of scenes that work despite the flat staging, and too few scenes that work really well for me to recommend it without condition. I just can't seem to wrap my head around why Penn picked this story as his big action hero moment, apart from the fact that it's age appropriate for him. At times it just feels like The Expendables with a much better cast, and honestly, when that's the best you can say about a film, you're not really saying much of anything.
O Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]