Mid-way through Pierre Morel’s latest film, The Gunman, the hero of the piece and trigger man of the film’s title (a herculean Sean Penn) finds himself in dire straits in Barcelona. Inadequately dressed for a dinner date at a swanky restaurant, he lifts a suit jacket from the back of a chair and instantly looks the dogs b*llocks.
While this moment of Bond-like audacity brought a smile to my face, the miraculously tailored fit was altogether too convenient and a missed opportunity. What if the sleeves had been too long or the shoulders too tight? The same can be said for the film as a whole – it takes a well-worn genre and doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary with it. It fits too well. Morel made Liam Neeson a middle-aged badass with the Taken series, will he do the same with Sean Penn?
The Democratic Republic of Congo: 2006. John Terrier (Penn) and fellow private security buddies provide protection for planes arriving to Kinshasa and are occasionally contracted to take out mining ministry officials with long-range sniper rifles. As you do. Felix (an unusually poor and hammed-up Javier Bardem) is head of the group and a number of jealous close-ups tell us he is very keen on Terrier’s doctor girlfriend, Annie (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca who has the only female role). Director of operations, Cox (Mark Rylance), says that whoever takes the shot must leave the continent. Felix makes the final call, Felix wants to steal Terrier’s girlfriend, Terrier pulls the short straw – quelle surprise.
2014: Felix and Annie are married. Terrier is back in the DRC digging wells for an NGO, as well as surfing, to make amends for the disastrous consequences of the assassination 8 years previously and suffers from Jason Bourne-esque headaches due to the repeated loud bangs of his past. Out of nowhere, three heavies arrive to take him out. He fights them off with the help of his pal Eugene (Ade Oyefeso – the only African character given any lines) and so begins a pan-European quest for who is behind it all. You know the drill.
There’s no doubt that Penn’s heart is in the right place. He was on the ground in New Orleans (albeit with personal photographer in tow) in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, likely before Bush had even turned on the news; is an advocate for gay rights and equality; and in 2012 won the Peace Summit Award for his foundation of the Haitian Relief Organization and ongoing work in the earthquake-stricken nation.
In The Gunman he looks to channel his inner humanitarian and general criticism of the West’s multinationals, co-writing the screen adaptation of Jean-Pierre Manchette’s The Prone Gunman with Don MacPherson and Pete Travis. Whilst the pen-wielding triumvirate may have held higher moral aspirations at the outset, stock images of atrocities, starving children and mocked-up news reports do not go far enough to render its socio-political intentions anything more than bookends to the gun-slinging and action set pieces.
It may be all too predictable in terms of plot and the script contain such platitudes as “We did some bad things; I did some bad things,” but the film’s pacing is unrelenting. Morel has more credits to his name for cinematography than he does direction and the sweeping aerial shots and fight scenes are striking. Unfortunately, with such inane writing at its core, the film cannot be elevated above a generic shoot ’em up.
Ray Winstone, who looks like one of the boys from Status Quo fallen on hard times, features as long-time acquaintance and fixer, Stanley. Idris Elba is Interpol agent Barnes and delivers the oddest and most in-depth tree house metaphor in cinematic history. Neither of them have much to work with. The two canons attached to Penn’s shoulders and his ripped torso have more of a pivotal role and that says it all really.
The Gunman is released on digital platforms on 13th July and DVD from 2oth July.