Film history will one day mark “Taken” as the “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” of the new millennium — the latter movie gave ignored actresses of a certain age new big-screen opportunities as ax-wielding murderesses, and now the former is spawning a whole new sub-genre of middle-aged actors picking up guns in the hopes of getting the same career boost that Liam Neeson has enjoyed.
The latest to lock and load is Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” and while the film makes a few stabs at selling us on Sean Penn, Global Humanitarian, its real agenda (Penn was a co-writer and co-producer) is to offer up Sean Penn, Viable Action Star. He surfs, he showers, and he has sex for reasons that have more to do with showing the actor shirtless than they do with advancing the plot.
That plot — by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Penn — could use all the help it can get, since what begins and ends as an exploration of Western exploitation of the Congo’s mineral resources and the havoc that it wreaks upon the natives mostly follows the standard track of the retired hit-man who realizes that he hasn’t quite yet eluded the sins of the past.
We open in the Congo of 2006, where Jim (Penn) is supposedly helping to build an airfield while providing security for NGO aid workers; he’s madly in love with surgeon Annie (Jasmine Trinca, “The Best of Youth”), but director Pierre Morel (“Taken”) cuts five or six times to Jim’s colleague Felix (Javier Bardem, in a rare terrible performance) glowering at them so we get the message that Felix loves her too.
Jim and Felix are actually part of a team of assassins who are there to take out the Minister of Mining, who wants to cancel all the foreign contracts in the country; Felix gets to decide who will be the shooter — as well as the fact that the shooter must immediately leave Africa — so naturally he picks Jim.
Cut to 2014, where Jim has returned to the Congo to dig wells, until one day three armed locals show up to kill him. Jim realizes he’s a target, so he dashes off to London to meet up with other former team members Cox (Mark Rylance) and Stanley (Ray Winstone). All roads lead back to Barcelona, where Felix is now married to the unhappy Annie (who, for reasons unknown, now teaches grammar school rather than practice medicine). Cue the chasing and the shooting and the exploding, up to a big finale at — what the heck, we’re in Spain — a bullfight.
One intriguing plot twist introduced early on is Jim’s declining health, with symptoms similar to early-onset Alzheimer’s, his dangerous lifestyle having led to an accumulation of deadly plaque on his brain. The idea of a man who will die if he doesn’t avoid stress, exertion and loud noises — only to be pursued by men who will kill him unless he fights them off, thus facing stress, exertion and loud noises — is a potentially fascinating premise that “The Gunman” couldn’t care less about. The brain business is introduced in act one and then basically forgotten until the climax.
If the scenes in the Congo are meant to inject some kind of social consciousness into a shoot-em-up, they don’t — the Africa subplot comes off like such an afterthought that it’s a MacGuffin at best.
“The Gunman” does, at least, offer perpetual forward motion; once Jim realizes he’s in danger, there’s not a lot of pausing to reflect, and whatever second-unit director was in charge of helicopter shots more than earned his or her keep. Even with heavyweights like Penn and Rylance, the acting is mostly negligible, although Winstone and Idris Elba (as an INTERPOL agent) add some spark to their fleeting moments onscreen, while Peter Franzén, who looks like a Eurotrash-assassin version of onetime MTV host Dave Holmes, brings genuine menace to his fight scenes with Penn.
Does this movie herald Penn as the next 50-something action star? Hard to say; it’s one thing to bring a gravelly gravitas to characters like this, but Penn suffers and glowers so much that it weighs down the material. If he plans to strap on the Kevlar in future, he might consider lightening up a little and saving the intensity for more serious movies.