THE GUNMAN * *
Starring Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance and Idris Elba. Screenplay by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Sean Penn. Directed by Pierre Morel.
Robert De Niro was 55 years old when he decided to become an action hero. If by some chance you haven’t seen John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, by all means do yourself a favor and correct that immediately.
Mind you, this was 1998 and De Niro’s unfortunate sell-out era hadn’t quite kicked in yet, so it was a blast to watch him lead a team of aging mercenaries washed up after the end of the Cold War put them all outta business. He’s remarkable– playing absurd chase sequences with a twinkle in his eye, totally owning his movie star charisma in a suave leather jacket the way he scarcely had before nor ever since. De Niro is a pip in this movie, and at one point he fires a bazooka.
Sean Penn – in so many ways De Niro’s spiritual heir of early Method intensity and late-period dissolution – is 54 years old and just decided to become an action hero. But The Gunman isn’t nearly as much fun as Ronin. It’s actually kind of a drag, presumably in no small part because of Penn’s goddamned integrity.
A slicked-up piece of Eurotrash from Taken director Pierre Morel, The Gunman is at heart a junky globe-trotting thriller starring Penn as a CIA assassin who quit The Company in disgust and went off the grid to go haul sandbags in Third World countries full-time because he feels guilty about gunning down a political leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo eight years ago. Now all of the sudden people are trying to kill him and he’d like to know why.
God bless Sean Penn, he can’t just sell out and make a crappy action movie. Penn produced and co-wrote the screenplay for The Gunman – which we’re told was based on an old French pulp novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette but really has nothing at all to do with it. Instead it’s a quandary of NGOs, poverty statistics and humanitarian efforts with an occasional shoot-out sprinkled in for good measure. Kinda like if Bono penned a Liam Neeson potboiler.
There’s a way, way overqualified cast sinking their teeth into the seen-it-all supporting roles that provide the juice in this sorta thing. Ray Winstone is a riot, playing Penn’s old Agency partner as Danny from Withnail And I. Javier Bardem tries on a variety of his patented unflattering haircuts while oozing treachery. Later on, Idris Elba kicks the whole movie over to his time signature in a too-fleeting cameo, and finally the Royal Shakespeare Company’s own Mark Rylance roars in to chew all the scenery until there’s nothing left onscreen. Every one of these guys knows exactly what kind of movie they’re in.
Too bad Sean Penn doesn’t. Hunched over and brooding with the guilt of his past misdeeds, he’s a miserable, chain-smoking drip, sucking the life out of every scene. Absurdly jacked up so he looks like the head of a thirties gangster movie villain grafted onto the body of a 1980’s Stallone character, Penn internalizes the entire film in a tousle-headed, nicotine fog of angsty gloom.
Sean Penn is without question the greatest actor of his generation, but that doesn’t mean he can necessarily carry an action movie. These are two entirely different skill-sets. Penn can’t help but constantly present himself as Christ on the cross, while I couldn’t help but thinking of how much more fun he would have been in one of those weirdo supporting parts.
He’s a big black hole in the middle of what otherwise might’ve been a passable, time-killing shoot-em-up. But whatever, let’s all go watch Ronin again.