Director Pierre Morel understands what it takes to turn a veteran actor into an action hero with a single vision. His guidance of Liam Neeson through the brutal and big-fisted explosiveness of “Taken” is a shining example.
Morel’s back at it with “The Gunman.” This time, it’s Sean Penn pushed into the role of aging action hero. When his crimes come back to haunt him, he’s forced out of a life of quite retribution to resume his killing ways.
Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is a mercenary who must leave Africa after his team assassinates the minister of mines on the Congo. Terrier’s a man who has lived his life on the move. This time, he must leave behind Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a woman he deeply, madly loves.
He’s seems fated never to see Annie again, but years later an attempt on his life forces him to reconnect with friends and foes to find out why he’s being targeted.
“The Gunman” is well-meaning, but it lacks the spark that made “Taken” such a compelling tale. The key problem is the core of Penn’s character.
It was easy to jump aboard the “Taken” thrill ride because Neeson’s character is drawn back into the world of death and destruction as a way of protecting his family. But Terrier is being hunted for a murderous act, so he’s not nearly as sympathetic a reluctant hero.
That creates an emotional domino effect where each action Terrier takes seems triggered by a negative force that keeps building to the final showdown.
The script by Don MacPherson (based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette) includes some smart moments, such as setting the dramatic finale in a bullring. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the way Terrier has spent hims life as little more than a killing machine.
But MacPherson gets tangled up in a web of politics. He has a hard time keeping his players in their particular frameworks, which means they aren’t well defined.
He completely loses his way with the character played by Javier Bardem. It’s never clear where he belongs in the political and romantic threads of the story. Bardem’s not the kind of actor to get lost in such confusion, except when the script has some bumps and bruises.
Penn’s the last problem. Neeson worked because he looks like a man whose life has ridden hard. His soul looks exhausted, but he moves ahead out of love.
Penn comes across as a crazy accountant. He just doesn’t have the aura of a man who could be behind so much mayhem and carnage. That’s particularly noticeable when he’s with Trinca. They generate as much electricity as a AA battery.
In less skilled hands, these problems would have killed “The Gunman.” Morel knows how to pace such films, which leaves little time to notice the flaws. They only become clear after the credits roll.
It would have been nice for “The Gunman” to become the next “Taken” franchise. Morel has a certain set of skills that he uses to make this kind of film work. Unfortunately, with “The Gunman” he misses the mark.