Very loosely adapted from a Jean-Patrick Manchette novel, The Gunman stars Sean Penn as a former mercenary who finds himself hunted by hit squads and Interpol agents. Penn, who produced and co-wrote the film, at least has the look down. Bulked up and severely tanned, with arms crisscrossed by hard veins, he resembles a more realistically proportioned Sylvester Stallone. But though the combination of close-quarters combat and ham-fisted geopolitics can be surprisingly palatable, The Gunman is too disorganized and sloppy to make sense as political commentary or to work on the most basic level as a globe-trotting chase thriller.
Directed by Pierre Morel (Taken) and shot by Flavio Labiano, another veteran of the Liam Neeson thriller circuit, The Gunman sticks closely to the Neeson formula: serious actor in an action star role; super-competent, problem-solving hero shaded by guilt; unseen villain; tourist-friendly urban locations; gruesome fights staged in stairwells and hallways. Morel has always had a knack for the latter. His brutal, overcast style, which creates a sense of momentum by having the camera lunge along with the characters, is made for goons pummeling and knifing each other in tight spaces.
The difference is that Morel’s previous features (District B13, the aforementioned Taken, From Paris With Love) were constantly in motion, the sort of movies where windows are always leapt through, doors are only ever kicked down, and cars only stop by crashing. The Gunman isn’t one of these movies. It’s a dawdling, barely coherent corporate mystery, involving mining contracts and congressional subpoenas, tacked with clumsy asides about the importance of NGOs in providing essential services in the developing world. It’s easy to point the finger at the script, credited to the unlikely trio of Penn, Dredd director Pete Travis, and re-write specialist Don MacPherson; if ever a movie felt like it was glued together from unrelated drafts, this is it. Or maybe it’s just ego: Jim Terrier (Penn) is a bona fide star construct, a ruggedly handsome killer with a dark past who also really cares about humanitarian relief.
Though The Gunman pulls together a small handful of vicious set pieces—a shoot-out at a country villa, a fight against machete-carrying hired killers—most of the movie speaks to Morel’s difficulty sustaining interest in anything other than violence. (The exception is the effective opening, set over a long night in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo in 2006; under-lit to the point that it skirts legibility, it seems to come from a different movie altogether.) There’s an undeveloped romance with an old flame (Jasmine Trinca, miscast); plenty of good actors given nothing to do (Javier Bardem and especially Idris Elba, whose role consists of flicking a lighter twice and rambling through a monologue about treehouses); endless scenes of Terrier shuffling around London and Barcelona with a camo backpack, usually while following someone or being followed or both; and a ludicrous bullfight arena climax that Morel seems to have no interest in staging.
After a while, The Gunman comes to resemble Terrier himself, prone to memory lapses and migraines after a lifetime spent around war zones and gunfire. A viewer can almost feel the movie reminding itself what it’s about, the same way Terrier continually scribbles plot points down in his Moleskine. How else would one explain the final sequence, in which a newscaster directly addresses the audience to explain the ending?