At one point in "The Gunman," a pack of well-armed assassins is in hot pursuit of Sean Penn's sniper and his beautiful distressed damsel when suddenly she stops, refusing to go one step farther until he explains what the heck is going on.
My sentiments exactly.
Part of the contract that movies of this sort forge with moviegoers is that the reasons for all the running and gunning won't get in the way of the action. "The Gunman" doesn't play by those rules.
Instead of a pot-boiling crime noir like the one that exists in the pages of the late French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette's "The Prone Gunman" (which sounds better in French), the adaptation is a frustrating fiasco that kills the material and squanders its exceedingly fine cast.
Penn, who, let's face it, is the film's drawing card, is buffed up and in almost every scene. Yet his character never quite comes to life, or at least not in the ways we expect from the actor.
The movie's misfire comes as something of a surprise since Pierre Morel, who directed "Taken," is in charge. "Taken's" success in part lies in its simplicity — daughter's kidnapping makes ex-black ops dad crazy mad and launches him into full action mode for the rescue. In "Gunman," confusion reigns. Worse, you can sense the overreaching for contemporary relevance in the screenplay by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Penn.
The film starts in the Congo, where the mineral-rich country is being strip-mined by international conglomerates while guerrilla warfare between the country's factions is leaving a trail of blood.
Jim Terrier (Penn) is among a team of mercenaries hired to protect the mining operations and keep an eye on humanitarian efforts, which includes the beautiful aid worker Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who is his lover. Felix (Javier Bardem), also smitten with her, has the power to put Terrier in the line of fire and in short order he does.
Terrier is assigned to take a kill shot of a key political leader that causes even more chaos in the country and sends him on the run, leaving Annie to Felix. Nearly a decade later, he's doing penance by helping install wells in the region to ensure villages have fresh water, when that shot comes back to haunt him.
It comes in the form of an attempt on Terrier's life and sends him first to London to connect with some of his old running buddies. Terrier's blinding headaches get diagnosed — suffice it to say the news from the doctor is not good — then it's on to Barcelona, Spain, where Felix heads a highly lucrative nonprofit and Annie becomes his wife.
Indeed, everyone besides Terrier and one old colleague, Stanley (Ray Winstone), is now a sporting designer suit and operating out of a high-rise. They're all still dirty, just paying someone else to do the work.
The rest of the film hangs on the balance of power between the good bad guys — that would be Terrier and Stanley — and bad bad guys — Felix, a guy named Cox (Mark Rylance) and nearly everybody else.
Almost from the start of the film, we get glimpses of Idris Elba. He's well dressed too. But it is so late in the film before his potentially pivotal role begins to take shape, you wonder why they bother.
Penn can be a magnetic force field in any type of role, and he has an impressive history in action. Consider "Mystic River," which brought the actor his first Oscar in 2004. That drama also examined the ripple effect of crime, with Penn's performance so enigmatic you can barely breathe. "The Falcon & the Snowman" was another, a thriller with political implications, in which the actor's descent into drugs and deception is riveting.
He brings some of that energy and intensity to "The Gunman," but the interior life of a man trying to remake his fate remains in the dark.
The production value is high, the various global hot spots make an interesting canvas used well by cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano. Bardem, Elba, Winstone and Rylance, major talents all, do what they can with what they have. Trinca is a good opposite number for Penn, the chemistry is definitely there.
But the maze in which they've been dropped has too many dead ends. And the decision to end things in a bullring seems apt. By that point, there has been no shortage of bull.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release