It’s impossible to talk about The Gunman without discussing Taken. Everything director Pierre Morel ever does is going to be compared to it. And by starring Sean Penn, The Gunman invites those comparisons. Taken made Liam Neeson into an action star. Can The Gunman do the same for Penn?
It’s unfortunate, because whether or not he ever does another action movie, The Gunman is not really Sean Penn’s Taken. It may have the same director, but it’s definitely not the same film. Other than putting an aging actor in a badass role, Morel has clearly tried to do something different here and prove that he’s not a one-hit wonder. (Did you remember that he directed From Paris With Love, starring John Travolta, back in 2010? Yeah, I didn’t either.)
I don’t know that he’s succeeded here, but just because The Gunman won’t be revered in the same way Taken is, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.
Director: Pierre Morel
Release Date: March 20, 2015
Sean Penn has both writing and producing credits on The Gunman. There is also a sequence where Sean Penn goes surfing and then running shirtless through a town, clearly-steroid-induced muscles glistening. Coincidence? I think not. But of all the vanity moments to add to a film, a couple minutes of manflesh aren’t really all that offensive. And though it’s pretty clear that The Gunman was made with Sean Penn in mind at any and all times, I tell this to you so you go in with the proper mindset. This is Sean Penn’s movie, everyone else was just playing a part in it.
Sean Penn plays Martin Terrier, a former assassin who was sent away after a particularly significant job in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eight years later, he’s doing some work for an NGO in the DRC, working to let go of his past, when a group of militants comes looking for “the white man.” If this were Taken, that would be the end of the narrative. The rest of the film would be 60 minutes of Sean Penn going around and shooting people until they stop bothering him.
But this isn’t Taken, and that’s just the start. Liam Neeson was a dramatic actor willing to give up the drama in order to be a badass. Sean Penn does no such thing. His action highs are countered by quieter moments of introspection or conversation. Not every moment ends in death, though many do. There isn’t really a switch that goes off, where everything suddenly changes. The film escalates, as these things do, but it follows the peaks and valleys principle far more closely than Taken, which is really just a valley followed by the peakiest of peaks.
But part of this is a function of The Gunman‘s rating. It’s rated R. Taken was rated PG-13. If you really think about that film, you realize that that’s kinda fucked up. I mean, it’s a film that uses sex trafficking as an all-but-throwaway plot device. The implications of Taken‘s narratives are horrific. But the film glosses over them, because if it didn’t, it probably would have gotten an R. The Gunman is actually less conceptually disturbing, but it adds a level of gravitas to everything that happens. The film essentially opens with an assassination, Terrier’s last before disappearing. But that assassination isn’t just the inciting incident for the film’s narrative; it’s something that weighs heavily on its protagonist’s mind. He has nightmares – probably PTSD – and Post Concussion Syndrome, which means that loud sounds (like explosions and gunfire) can put him off balance and possibly even knock him out. This isn’t explored as deeply as it could be, but little things like that add up to make the film a bit less generic than it may seem.
Because, let’s be real, it seems pretty gosh damn generic on the face of it. You’ve heard the premise at least infinite times before, and the roided out Sean Penn looks bizarrely like Sylvester Stallone, but sometimes the film does surprise you. Specifically useful is the general lack of Deus Ex Machinas. They happen, because sure, but more often than not it isn’t blind luck that gets Terrier out of trouble; it’s skill. Bad guys usually shoot on sight, and they’re usually pretty smart. They do their best to trap him, but he’s just more of a badass. And because of this, the action sequences are all quite good (and the addition of (lots of) blood gives the whole thing an extra kick), even if they do subscribe to the over-cut/confusion camera style of filmmaking. But that’s less a problem with The Gunman than American action cinema in general. It’s not even a “trend” anymore. It’s just the reality. And it’s sad. And I hate it. But it is what it is.
There’s a running joke on staff that our own Sean Walsh has a tendency to give not particularly good action and horror movies the benefit of the doubt. This is what led to Taken 2‘s 65 and Taken 3‘s 70. But with The Gunman I know how he feels. As of the time I write this, the film has a 38 on Metacritic and a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, here I am as one of the few who legitimately enjoyed the film. I really did. As a follow-up to Taken, it may be kind of disappointing, but it’s a radically different film and a different kind of film. By comparison, pretty much everything will be a disappointment (Taken is amazing). It’s trying to be thoughtful and change up the formula, if only a little bit. It doesn’t work all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but it’s really a lot more interesting than I think people are giving it credit for.
“Interesting” is a great word, but its meaning has changed a bit. People usually say something is “interesting” because they have nothing actually positive to say about it, and “interesting” sounds positive. And honestly, bad things are usually kind of “interesting.” But The Gunman is interesting in a positive way. It’s interesting in context with Taken and other action films of its sort, it’s interesting in the way it takes advantage of its R rating not only to up the gore factor but to try to tell a story that’s a bit less ADD, and it’s interesting in the way it uses a pretty great dramatic actor like Sean Penn to tell that story. Writing/producing credit or no, this is an interesting (there’s that word again) choice for him. And I want to see the film succeed, because I’d like to see him try it again. The Gunman may be a rocky start for Penn’s would-be rebirth as an action superstar, but it shows potential for something great. If this was Sean Penn’s Taken, I guess it’s time to wait for The Grey.