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A 50+ year-old former/current mercenary/military operative/super spy is contemplating retirement or has retired when his past (it’s always a “he”) suddenly catches up to him and he is forced to holster up once again and kick some ass. That, in a nutshell, describes the plot of “Taken” and its sequels, “Red” and its sequel, “The Expendables” and its sequels and even “3 Days to Kill,” among others. It’s a formula that rebranded Liam Neeson as an action star and jump-started the careers of many 1980s tough guys relegated to the direct-to-video dustbin. So, if it worked for all of them, it should work for someone like Sean Penn, right? Not so fast.

Co-written, co-produced and starring Penn, “The Gunman” tries to be too many things at once: a globe-trotting action movie with a political conscience; a throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the 70s; and a love story. It fails at all three. “The Gunman” takes itself too seriously because, you know, Sean Penn is a serious actor who wants to address serious issues. And it wastes the talents of such brilliant actors as Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Javier Bardem (who delivers the looniest, most throw-everything-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks performance of his career).

“The Gunman” opens in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, a time of turmoil for the country as it faces its first multiparty elections in three decades. Jim Terrier (Penn) is a former special-ops soldier tasked with providing security for an NGO while carrying undercover military operations on behalf of a mining consortium. He is deeply in love with surgeon Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who has caught Felix’s eye (Bardem), the point person between Penn’s small army of mercenaries and their bosses. You know as soon as you see Felix glare jealously at the two lovebirds, that he will find a way to get Jim out of the picture. The opportunity arrives when Jim’s team is tasked with the assassination of the country’s mining minister (note: no such assassination ever took place; and the turmoil the film shows was most probably due to the contentious election results). Felix chooses Jim as the shooter, which means that Jim will have to leave the country once the deed is done.

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Eight years later, a repentant Jim returns to Congo to make amends for his past deeds by working for another NGO. But when three men show up to kill him, the old warrior springs into action and, after dispatching his would-be assassins, flies to London to find out who put a contract out on him. His inquiries lead him to Barcelona and a confrontation between Felix and Annie. There is one additional plot complication our middle-aged warrior must contend with: a bizarre brain disease that leaves Jim knocked flat on the floor and his doctor advising him to avoid any activities that would worsen the condition. In other words, avoid as many explosions, fights and shootouts as possible. The script conveniently neglects this wee bit of plotting until the climax at a bullfight in Barcelona (because nothing says Spain like bullfighting, especially in a city that has banned bullfights).

“The Gunman” is first and foremost a star vehicle for Penn, one that has the feel of a vanity project: a vehicle obsessed with Penn’s toned physique (and constipated expressions). One that feels at the beginning almost didactic: Penn wants to show us that genre films can be about something and not just the instant gratification of watching bullets and bodies fly. Yes, action films can be much more than that: just look at the films directed by John Woo at the height of his career in the 90s (“A Better Tomorrow,” “Hard-Boiled,” “The Killer”). Alas, director Pierre Morrel is no John Woo.
Morrel’s films are tightly edited, his action scenes bone-crunchingly close and personal. They go effortlessly from point A to point B. And they are far much more fun than this strange concoction written by Penn, Don MacPherson and Pete Travis based on a novel by French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette (which, based on what I’ve read about it, is radically different than what we see on the screen…and much better). “The Gunman” comes alive precisely in those moments Morrel feels more comfortable with: when Penn is dispatching his adversaries.

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But Morrel flounders when it comes to any sort of character interaction, especially those scenes involving the ménage-a-trois between Felix, Jim and Annie. Here, Morrel allows Bardem to make some questionable acting choices that transcend the bizarre nature of his performances for “No Country for Old Men” and “Skyfall”…and not in a good way. In particular, a restaurant scene where Felix has set up an awkward encounter with Annie and Jim: it borders on the soap operaish, with Bardem grimacing like an overwrought Televisa villain while Penn looks on with a mixture of embarrassment and shock. The scene is soon followed by another one at Felix’s country home: here Bardem pulls all the stops as he drunkenly yells and screams before he meets his demise.

Poor Jasmine Trinca: her character seems bipolar at best. In her early scenes she is a strong, determined and love struck woman. In Barcelona, under Felix’s spell, she’s a happy Stepford Wife, her role limited to a function of the script: that of the woman who must be rescued by Jim from the real culprit.

In more than one occasion, Jim admits feeling paranoid about his situation. But Morrel is not a director known for establishing moods, for creating an atmosphere, the way Alan J. Pakula did in such political thrillers as “The Parallax View” or even Hitchcock in his spy films. But, again, the fault is not entirely Morrel’s: it lies with a script that aspires to be more than generic.

Most of the action may take place in Barcelona but, unlike Morrel’s previous efforts, the city is never fully integrated into the action. Neither is Congo where once again we are witnesses to images of chaos, revolt and death…and of white people trying to save a Third World country from itself. And there’s something ironic in that: Penn may want to call attention to the plight of many African nations to the masses through a genre film.
But in the end, the good intentions have yielded some bad and questionable results.

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