Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Sean Penn isn’t exactly the kind of actor audiences think of when they think of action movie heroes. And they’d be right. Usually favoring crime dramas (like COLORS, CARLITO’S WAY, and DEAD MAN WALKING) or indie films that feature “characters” (like I AM SAM, MILK and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE), the talented actor hasn’t attempted a straight-forward action film before director Pierre Morel’s in-your-face thriller, THE GUNMAN. Though it’s more a drama about corruption, whistleblowers and the pigeonholing of those who stand up for truth, the film occasionally shows Penn dispensing with some ass-kicking justice. It’s just too bad all the stunt work is disguised in shaky cam genericness. With no sense of scale, scope, story or how to shoot bruising action, Morel misses the target.
Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is an expert sniper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on security detail, making sure doctors like his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) are protected from the rebels. That’s his cover story, anyways. He and his team – including Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance) – are really there on a covert mission to kill the Minister of Mines. After Jim’s given the kill order, he flees the country, leaving Annie behind and taking more emotional baggage home. 8 years later, seeking some sort of karmic penance, he’s back in the DRC to build water systems. Things change drastically for our hero when a pack of machete-wielding men disguised as rebels come a’ callin. Who ordered these hitmen? Back to London Jim goes to find some answers. However, when there are no hot leads and he’s diagnosed with severe brain trauma akin to early onset Alzheimer’s (which the film ironically forgets right away), he enlists his burly bad-ass buddy Stanley (Ray Winstone, who’s great in everything) to help him get to Barcelona, where he can reunite with Felix. Alliances are broken as the hunt for his head ensues. The marksman has become the mark.
Morel, Luc Besson’s protégé who practically pioneered unnecessary shaky cam in stunt heavy sequences, has again crafted something that demeans both the work of the stunt teams who’ve worked hard to create something unique and the actors who’ve trained to take on these roles. Why aren’t their unions rebelling against this? Throughout all THE GUNMAN’s stunt scenes, the schlock-teur relies on disorienting audiences with jostling medium shots and close-ups to heighten the suspense. Trouble is, it doesn’t work – it does the opposite. And it’s a damn shame as Penn, who’s tailored his physique into ripped surf demi-god status, proves he has the chops to be a ballsy action movie hero. Unlike in Paul Greengrass’ BOURNE films, where the shaking is part and parcel to the narrative drive, Morel’s work comes across as lazy, generic and a rote rendering of previous action films. Sadly, this is the legacy TAKEN has begat.
Another glaring problem is Annie’s barely-there one-dimensionality. She has no agency of her own. She floats from man (Penn) to man (Bardem) until she needs rescuing by a man from the clutches of an evil man. She is a doctor for Pete’s sake! Shouldn’t she have her own very particular set of skills?! From the man that idolizes Besson’s work, where females take center stage in the action, it’s surprising that Morel devalues and demoralizes women’s cinematic power.
Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Penn’s script has a multitude of laughable scenarios. From dumb dialogue like “There was a debt that needed to be paid after you left and he’s still collecting,” to Idris Elba entering in the third act simply to speak vaguely about tree houses, to setting the final showdown at a bullfight so there could be ham-handed metaphors, THE GUNMAN is a veritable buffet of ridiculousness. Not in a good way either – it’s all bad. While they do get a little MACGYVER-y showing Terrier’s quick thinking in disarming a hallway booby-trap, it’s few and far between. Maybe Jean-Patrick Michette’s book – on which this is based – was like this too, but I’ll never know.
Slow, sexist and stupid, THE GUNMAN is something you won’t want to have your sights on.
THE GUNMAN opens on March 20.