With "The Gunman," two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn becomes the latest actor of a certain age to shoot for a mid-career jolt via some good old-fashioned action heroism. It worked spectacularly well for Liam Neeson in the "Taken" movies and its successors, less so for Pierce Brosnan in "The November Man" and Kevin Costner in "3 Days to Kill." So what about Penn?
"The Gunman" finds the dramatic actor playing a mercenary-turned-aid-worker who gets pulled back into his old gun-wielding life. Alas, according to reviews, the movie misses the mark.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey says the film, an adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel "The Prone Gunman," is "a frustrating fiasco that kills the material and squanders its exceedingly fine cast." (Penn's co-stars include Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Jasmine Trinca.)
Sharkey adds that "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." That "comes as something of a surprise since Pierre Morel, who directed 'Taken,' is in charge."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott writes, "It's not a hard and fast rule, but in general when the main character, sometime in the third act, says, 'I did some bad things …' and stares off into the middle distance, the implied end of the sentence is 'including this movie.' I take no particular pleasure in reporting that this is the case in 'The Gunman.'"
Scott also says Penn, "aiming for weary, battered intensity, settles into a zone somewhere between fatigue and indigestion," and the plot "runs out of steam long before the loose ends are tied up."
USA Today's Claudia Puig says, "The only redeeming feature about 'The Gunman' is its exotic locations," which include the Congo, London, Barcelona and Gibraltar. She warns moviegoers, "Unless you're aching to see Sean Penn's impressively chiseled pecs and abs — which he shows off early and often — give this monotonous thriller a pass."
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday says the movie "looks terrific," but eventually both the plot and Penn's "over-determined character arc" become "exponentially more outlandish. It all comes to a preposterous head in a climactic scene staged in the storied Spanish toreadors arena known as La Monumental, where the filmmakers try mightily for thrills and metaphorical weight but fail on a scale commensurate with the setting. 'The Gunman' may start as a genre exercise of promising purpose, but it winds up being just a lot of bull."
A few critics don't think "The Gunman" is shooting blanks, however. Among them is the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle. He calls it "a different kind of action movie, something with some ideas and a conscience, but not so many ideas or so big a conscience as to slow things down."
"Though the story might have a certain sameness," LaSalle says, "the action varies enough and the central mystery is arresting enough that 'The Gunman' maintains a sure grip on the viewer."