Time for another exciting round of “How the Fuck Did This Go Wrong?”
Our subject for today is The Gunman, a film starring Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, and Ray Winstone, yet it has a pathetic Tomatometer of only 14 percent. So how the fuck did this go wrong?
Well, the poster proudly states that this is a movie “from the director of Taken,” yet Liam Neeson is nowhere in sight and we already have a Taken ripoff (which really does star Liam Neeson) in multiplexes right now. You’d be forgiven for thinking that might be a clue. But no, the culprit in this case is most likely the ego of star/co-writer/producer Sean Penn. From the very first minutes, when we open with a news montage about living conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the film shows an anti-war, anti-corporate, aggressively humanitarian bent that has Sean Penn’s name all over it.
And to be entirely clear, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Even if we expect the worst of Penn and assume that he’s only championing third-world countries to make himself feel more important, what of it? An insincere and egocentric act of charity still does more good than a genuine act of apathy any day. Plus, it’s absolutely true that living conditions in Africa are nothing short of hellish, in large part due to western demand for rare minerals and the resulting influx of money. If the filmmakers want to talk about that by way of an action movie, good for them. I’m sure it’ll get more views than a documentary that will only be seen by maybe a handful of Academy voters.
It’s not a bad story. It’s just a badly told story.
If we’re going to take a discussion seriously when it’s about such a huge issue with so many international parties involved, then the discussion has to be detailed. It has to examine the subject from all possible angles, the better to educate the audience and make a well-argued point.
By contrast, the most important virtue of any action movie is simplicity. We need the stunts to be elaborate and the plot to be straightforward. If an audience ever — at any point in an action movie — has to stop and ask who to root for, who to root against, or why the two parties are trying to kill each other, then the filmmakers have failed. That’s all there is to it.
In this case, the two approaches cancel each other out.
Getting to the premise, Penn plays the eponymous Jim Terrier, who works in the DRC with a private security firm. Then we see him in a van with three or four other guys who are preparing a high-level political assassination. The instructions are that only one of the gunmen in that van will have to take the shot and flee the continent. A short while later, Felix (Javier Bardem) picks Jim to pull the trigger and kill the target.
Cut to eight years later, when someone is trying to kill Jim. This naturally prompts him to go travelling all over the world to meet his old work buddies and find out what the hell is going on.
We’re never explicitly told why the assassination was carried out or who Jim was working for until halfway through the freaking movie. Before that point, we’re simply watching characters we know nothing about who are doing things and fighting each other for no reason. So it fails as an action film. After that point, all the characters are revealed to be paper-thin cartoon stereotypes operating on a strictly dichromatic morality. So it fails as an intelligent work of cinema. And it still fails as an action film.
It’s absolutely impossible to give anything that even slightly resembles a fuck about these characters. Ray Winstone plays the “best friend” role whose primary job is to spout exposition and get the main character whatever he needs. Idris Elba doesn’t even show up until the third act. Javier Bardem exists pretty much entirely for the purpose of a love triangle between Jim and his love interest (Annie, played by Jasmine Trinca). And the love triangle doesn’t work because Annie is a thoroughly useless damsel in distress who shows no sign of chemistry with either of her male leads.
I should also point out the heavy implication that Felix only ordered Jim to shoot a high-ranking government official and flee the country so that Jim would be out of the way and Annie would be up for the taking. This cheapens the story, the characters, and the greater themes of the film in every possible way.
As for our protagonist himself? Yeesh. See, Jim has a brain injury (presumably caused by so many years of field action) that tends to cause migraines, vertigo, nausea, and other neurological symptoms when triggered by stress. So basically, it’s a way for the filmmakers to conveniently raise the tension whenever they feel like it by magically robbing the character of his competence during a pivotal moment in an action scene. Aside from that one chronic case of lazy writing, there’s nothing memorable about our protagonist. I totally believe that Penn wanted the character to work and he could absolutely be the star of a much better action movie, but this character is just too cliched and boring.
That’s really what it all comes down to with The Gunman. Everything about this film — the plot, the characters, the action scenes — are all so boring and uninspired. The movie is too preachy and heavy-handed to be any fun, it’s too stupid to be taken seriously as a treatise on the plight of war-torn Africa, and it doesn’t work as a suspense thriller because the filmmakers use melodrama as a substitute for tension.
This is a film at war with itself, made of so many conflicting parts that are only barely held together with a paint-by-numbers plot. It’s a self-important slog. Stay away.