Liam Neeson has a lot to answer for. It was his rise to stardom in bad B-action movies set in foreign locales that’s inspired other graying leading men to take a similar leap. The recipe didn’t work for Kevin Costner in “3 Days to Kill,” and it’s unlikely to succeed any better for Sean Penn, despite the fact that he’s working with director Pierre Morel, who helmed Neeson’s first “Taken” movie, in “The Gunman.”
Presumably Penn, who’s one of the producers and had a hand in the script, thought that the film, based loosely on a 1981 novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, had a political point to make about the abuse of Third World resources by greedy multinational corporations. But in fact that plot thread is little more than a spuriously meaningful cover for what’s nothing but a standard-issue series of action tropes that grow more and more ludicrous as each tries to top the last. The conclusion, set at a Barcelona bullfight ring, is about as silly as such stand-offs can get, with a topper that practically dares you not to snicker at its absurdity.
In what amounts to a prologue set in 2006, Penn plays Jim Terrier, who works for some sort of mysterious company involved in mining interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo alongside Felix (Javier Bardem), Stanley (Ray Winstone) and Cox (Mark Rylance). He’s also in a romance with pretty nurse Annie (Jasmine Trinca). But when a new Minister of Mining announces plans to renegotiate all existing contracts with foreign companies, Terrier—one of three marksmen on the team for such purposes—is ordered by his boss Felix to assassinate the man and leave the country. He follows orders, abandoning Annie in the process.
Eight years later, Jim, clearly still tormented by what he’d done—an act that supposedly ignited a horrendous civil war—is working for a NGO in Congo, leading teams digging water wells. But he’s attacked one morning by a cadre of men who attempt to kill him. He dispatches them, of course (though one is actually shot by his faithful African aide), and cunningly discerns that they were obviously sent against him and him alone. Quickly assessing that the attempt on his life is connected with the 2006 assassination, he jets off to London to consult with Cox, now a chief executive with a firm involved in international business, and Stanley, still involved in black ops work. (His meeting with the latter gives him the opportunity to beat up some bar thugs.) They point him to Barcelona, where Felix, now married to Annie, greets him coldly but does discover that Jim is the only one of the three Congo marksmen still alive. Immediately all hell breaks loose, and Terrier and Annie are on the run from gangs of murderous thugs.
There follows a series of typical set-pieces. Before leaving Barcelona for Gibraltar, where there are supposed to be answers, Jim gets rid of some of the stalkers by blowing them up in his hotel room. He then goes southward, where he confronts and nearly kills the villain (who shall remain undisclosed here), before returning to Barcelona, where Annie is now a captive of the bad guys and in need of rescue. That leads to the uproariously implausible finale at the bullfight—a sequence rife with shoot-outs, martial-arts style fights and a comeuppance for the villain that’s virtually dictated by the locale. In the course of all the mayhem, an Interpol detective (Edris Elba) shows up to encourage Terrier to do the right thing—which, of course, he eventually does (something that, if the postscript is to be believed, not only unravels a terrible conspiracy but earns him, though a murderer, complete exoneration).
One other plot element must be mentioned here. While in London, Jim takes the opportunity to visit a hospital to have some tests taken, and it turns out that those dizzy spells he’s been suffering are caused by a buildup in his brain that could prove fatal. That explains why, at crucial points in the rest of the narrative, he will conveniently black out, or at least be unable to see his quarry. It’s a lame writer’s crutch that was also used in “3 Days to Kill,” and is employed here as goofily as Keanu Reeves’ famous bad knee was in “Point Break.”
It only remains to say that Penn treats this drivel far more seriously than it deserves, though it must be said that apart from a weathered face, he looks to be in pretty good shape. Elba is wasted is a thankless role, while Winstone and Rylance are asked to do nothing not in their usual repertoire. Trinca is pretty, but offers only typical damsel-in-distress notes to play. The really corrupt turn comes from Bardem, who’s so over-the-top in the Barcelona scenes that you’d swear he was doing a parody. On the technical side, the picture looks dusky and curiously dim, with cinematographer Flavio Labiano failing to do much with the varied locales, though editor Frederic Thoraval manages to keep the action sequences relatively clear, even if they do go on too long, and Marco Beltrami and Jose Luis Rodriguez contribute a music score that fills the requirements of the genre.
The best thing about “The Gunman” is that unlike Morel’s “Taken,” it’s unlikely to spawn a sequel.