There’s a strange, almost meta comment made as the end credits for The Gunman roll past. The city of Barcelona wants it made clear to all that haven’t immediately vacated the theatre in disgust at the tedious film that they’ve just witnessed that, hey, there are no (fatal) Bullfights in Barcelona! Helpfully, they even let us know that this tradition has been eschewed since 2011, implying that lessons have been learned from the thousands of years that this activity took place, and that, yes, change can be made.
Debating the sporting, moral and aesthetic quandaries surrounding the tradition of bullfighting is not only immensely more interesting than this film, the credit also manages to highlight something inadvertent. Like the subject at hand, The Gunman also feels like a film past its prime, where the only thing on the mark is the aim of the protagonist.
The story feels like it’s drawn from a pulpy novel you’d read at the beach, and that’s exactly what its source is, being based on a French crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette from the early 1980s. The tale tells of the titular assassin on mission in the Congo, forced to evacuate after he carries out the execution of a local politician. The girl he was in love with is left behind, while his demons continue to follow him. Almost a decade later, working for an NGO digging wells, his past comes back to haunt in the form of a gun-weilding gang looking for blood (literally), and from there we get a by-the-numbers revenge story, with expositional dialogue interspersed by meandering action sequences.
This would be a forgettable, nothing of a film if the ingredients on paper weren’t pretty exceptional. You’ve got an Oscar winning lead in Sean Penn, surrounded by some stellar talent like Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Javier Bardem. The direction falls into the hands of Pierre Morel, the guy who helmed Taken where Liam Neeson shows off his particular set of skills, and even brought parkour to popular attention with Banlieue 13. Hell, Morel is even the guy who lensed the smashing Statham starrer The Transporter.
At least, then, we could have hoped for something engaging from these performers, along with some action scenes that sizzled, and an engaging visual style. What’s so frustrating is that instead of something dark and clever we get a dour, meandering story that’s telegraphed so badly it’d make Morse switch from hammering out his messages to sexting with Snapchat. Just watch the opening scenes where a lecherous Bardem hits on Penn’s love interest (played unconvincingly by Jasmine Trinca). It devolves into what I sometimes refer to “fiveshadowing”, something so perversely simplistic (and unnecessary) that you almost hope they’re doing this charade deliberately.
But no, the film treats its audience with as little intelligence as one fears from the opening salvo. So when Penn must vacate the Congo and leaves his lovergirl in the grabby hands of Bardem, we flash forward some eight years to find him back in the Congo again. I get that there’s supposed to be some sort of redemption here, but this move actually reminded me a bit of Jaws: The Revenge, where if you really wanted to avoid a murderous shark why not take up residence in Iowa rather than, say, the Bahamas.
There are plenty of shots of Penn showing off his Stallone-like physique (complete with those veiny things over his trainer-augmented arms that make them look not unlike penises), and we even get a bit of surfing in there to accept that, yeah, the guy who played Spicoli in Fast Times could in fact be a deadly assassin.
Yet this isn’t that Penn, nor is it the guy from Milk or even Gangster Squad. This is solidly in Shanghai Surprise territory, another tone-deaf piece that tried to play with noir elements in order to provide something contemporary yet classic, only to have it all descend into a big pile of nothing.
I hate to say it, but what the film is missing in part is the one-upmanship that ubiquitous producer Luc Besson may have added to the mix. Instead here the token brandname producer of record is Joel Silver, a man rarely accused of subtlety, but still a guy with credits on some of the best action films ever made (The Matrix, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon). Let’s add him to the list of guys that should have known better to do with this cast, these locations, this story line, this whole thing. It’s like they threw all their ideas up into the air and hoped it would all work out, yet I’m afraid to say it didn’t.
The Gunman felt as long and made me as bored as the fancy rifle he initially shoots with. You’ve got an A-level cast with a C-level female lead and a Z-level plot, all shot with a timidity that makes it feel more like terrible episodic television rather than a proper cinema experience. A tiresome waste of talent, this Gunman fires nothing but blanks.