Before I get started, I should probably warn you that this wasn’t the strongest weekend for mainstream releases in movies so if you wanted to watch something then I recommend you try staying home. That is, unless you are living next to a smaller theater that will be playing Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter. I saw this gem a little under a year ago at the Seattle International Film Festival and just recently it got a release in a few select cinemas. The film is a heartbreaking and intense psychological thriller that contains some of the best music and cinematography I’ve seen for a movie in years. It’s so good that it even got a nomination for best director and best actress at The Independent Spirit Awards months before its release date. If you haven’t already seen it, I deeply urge you to check this film out.
Aside from his crazy speech at the Oscars, Sean Penn hasn’t been up to much lately. He’s clearly a talented actor but it seems as though he’s had other things on his plate recently with his heavy humanitarian work in different parts of the world. But for the first time in a couple of years, Sean Penn is back playing the lead in a big budget studio film that also happens to have been partially written by him. It’s a shame that his big return is The Gunman, a well-acted misfire dragged down by a terrible script.
In The Gunman, Sean Penn plays Jim, an ex-soldier that fought in The Democratic Republic of the Congo who made a mistake in carrying out a specific assassination. To keep the mission a secret, he had to leave his girlfriend Annie as well as his home behind. Eight years later, a group of henchmen find and try to kill him. After killing all of them, he goes on a journey to find out who sent these people after him. Along the way, he meets up with his old military friends Stanley (Ray Winstone) and Cox (Mark Rylance), along with Annie and her fiancé Felix (Javier Bardem).
Before I get into what I thought was so bad about this, I will mention there are a few things about this movie that I did respect. For example, I thought it was ambitious of them to try to center the story around such a complex and difficult subject as the violent conflicts in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a topic that I (along with most people I assume) know very little about and with this, the writers and directors had a chance to bring this to light in an eye opening way. The movie doesn’t end up doing that at all but it still deserves a little credit for being a better set up than telling the same story with yet another retired bank robber or member of the mob. This at least had the chance of being an informative political thriller.
I still don’t think I buy Sean Penn as a badass action star after this, but when he has to act in this he gives it his all. His performance here kind of reminds me of Bryan Cranston in Godzilla in that Penn is trying to give his heavy and genuine performance in this very standard, cut-rate action thriller. There’s this one very simple scene where Jim is thanking a man for saving his life. With a lesser actor this would’ve been a quick line that was thrown into the script but here he makes the scene surprisingly heartfelt. Penn is doing such a great job that you wish he was giving this kind of performance in a movie that actually deserved it. For as hard as he tried, Penn’s fantastic work here didn’t save the movie. But to his credit, he tried as hard as he could.
Javier Bardem was also really entertaining in the couple of scenes that he’s in. I think he’s become one of those actors where he can make a weak movie entertaining when he’s on screen and he can make a great movie incredible when he’s on screen. He’s got one of the most poorly written characters in the movie but whenever he’s on screen he’s a lot of fun to watch. He and Sean Penn are going to be in a movie later this year called The Last Face and I hope that that movie is more up to the type of movie they both deserve.
The film aims to be an action thriller and while the film fails at the thriller part, the action scenes in this movie are pretty good. The fights are never over edited and there wasn’t any shaky cam. The director of this film was Pierre Morel and since he directed the first Taken film, you probably know what type of action you’re going to get in this movie. If you’re into that raw and brutal action style that’s known in Taken or The Raid, then you’ll probably find at least a little entertainment in this film. I will give The Gunman that it is one of the bloodiest mainstream action movies I’ve seen recently. These are the moments where it feels like Morel got to shine and its clear he put the most effort into action instead of the substance, which unfortunately is supposed to take up a larger part of the movie.
So yes, there were plenty of things that could’ve made this film at least decent and I can even see how at one time such a talented cast would’ve looked at the concept and thought this was a good idea. Unfortunately, the film stumbles hard in the area that perhaps matters the most when you’re making a geopolitical thriller, the script.
The movie takes its interesting concept and weighs it down to the most cliché, phony story you can think of. As I mentioned earlier, Jim being an ex-soldier in The Democratic Republic of The Congo is the only thing separating this from every other story about a man who has to return to dark, violent past. When the movie tries to throw in its possibly interesting political storyline, it comes off less as a coherent part of the story and more as lazily thrown in bit of exposition that’s too hard to follow and ultimately unnecessary to follow by the end of the film. The basic story ends up being the equivalent of a totally predictable, direct to DVD action thriller combined with the charm and emotion of reading a Wikipedia article. When the film ends, you’re given all of these different poorly told bits of information that lead you to nowhere. You could’ve just as easily understood the story half-watching this at home while trying to work on your computer or play a game on your mobile device. For the overly complicated story line they went with, I still know very little about the conflict they were trying to present here.
And when the movie isn’t being a sloppy political thriller, it’s making sure to check off every single action cliché. Is there an old mentor to the main character who ends up dying heroically near the end? Check. Is there an unrealistic and underwritten happy ending? Check. Is the villain an old friend of the main character from his dark past? Check. Does some of the dialogue come off as laughable in how pretentious it is? Check. The main character even has a poorly thrown in illness that only matters to the story when it’s convenient for it.
Hands down the worst character in the film is Jim’s ex-girlfriend Alice. She has got to be made up of every single, terrible, misogynistic stereotype you can put into a female in an action movie. Let’s pretend that you had a girlfriend or boyfriend who disappeared without telling you anything. Eight years later you’re married to someone new and this person shows up out of the blue to say they’re sorry. What would you do? Perhaps you would get angry at them, tell them to leave or at least slowly rebuild your relationship with this person over time. What does Alice do? One scene after finding out he’s alive, she goes to his hotel and has sex with him. There’s no conversation between them or anything, she sees him again at a restaurant with her husband and then cut to them making out. It’s extremely unrealistic and it’s one of the ways her character is disposable to this film. She only shows up in the film when they need something for the villains to point a gun at to motivate Sean Penn’s character.
Lastly, I want to mention this movies ridiculous waste of actor Idris Elba. Every bit of marketing for this movie had him highlighted as the second most important actor to Sean Penn. He shows up when the movie is almost over and he is on screen for maybe four minutes tops. He plays this detective character that could’ve easily been played by anyone. The only thing he offers to the movie is a conversation with Penn that features a hilariously, forced usage of treehouse metaphors. Here’s just one of the incredible pieces of dialogue that you can hear in this scene.
“You don’t want to climb this tree house Jim. There’s some termites in it and they aren’t just going to bite your hands.”
I’m paraphrasing a tad but that’s basically it. They hired one of the most acclaimed actors in Hollywood for an absolutely useless part. Idris Elba is in The Gunman in the same way Liam Neeson is in Battleship. At least this part probably paid for his vacation before his part in Beasts of No Nation.
For much as I hated the screenplay, The Gunman wasn’t a movie I left the theater hating. There are some impressive action scenes and Sean Penn does a great job. This is one of those cases where a film isn’t a bad as it could’ve been but it also isn’t as good as it could’ve been. The compelling concept is wasted on endless clichés, forgettable characters and some pretty horrendous dialogue throughout. The only people who I would recommend this to are maybe fans of Taken as they might be able to get some minor thrills out of the brief action scenes. Maybe if you had a filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow or Paul Greengrass handling the story then you could’ve ended up with a great thriller but bits and pieces of potential aren’t able to keep the movie from falling flat on its back.
Release Date: 3/20/2015
Cast: Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Screenplay by: Don MacPherson, Sean Penn and Pete Travis
Based on the novel by: Jean-Patrick Manchette