Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Peter Franzén, Idris Elba
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 3/20/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 19, 2015
Here is yet another movie that exploits a country's horrific present and recent past as the backdrop for a thriller. The Gunman summarizes the instability and violent unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the movie's opening moments and then seems to forget the country, its people, and the tragic battle for control over the government, elevated by foreign corporations that want to lay claim to the nation's vast deposits of natural resources. Our "hero" is a man who helps exasperate the troubles by assassinating a representative of the republic's government, and the movie supposes we'll find some sympathy for him because he feels vaguely guilty about the mess he helped to create. There's a greater, unintentional metaphor in that characterization, wouldn't you say?
The movie doesn't quite approach a level of irresponsibility, but its all-around lack of responsibility is off-putting. It at least makes us nostalgic for a time when the problems of a few of people didn't amount to a hill of beans when compared to the craziness of the world. Here, the key concerns are a man of violence wanting to atone for his violent past (by violent means—an irony about which the movie seems blissfully unaware), shirk responsibility for his past actions, and reconnect with the woman he loves. Meanwhile, people in Congo are dying by the tens and hundreds of thousands, but hey, this guy feels a little bad about it.
The guy in question is Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), who, at the start of the movie in 2006, is part of an international mineral corporation's security force in Congo. He's dating Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor for a non-profit humanitarian organization. She's also attracted the attention of Felix (Javier Bardem), a higher-up at the company, who is jealous of Jim. The state of normalcy is interrupted when Felix assembles an operation to assassinate the country's mining minister (such an inconvenience to romance), selecting Jim to pull the trigger and leave the continent without saying good-bye to Annie.
Eight years later, Jim has returned to Congo as part of an organization trying to rebuild the country's infrastructure. He is targeted by a group of mercenaries.
The plot revolves around Jim's attempt to evade a team of killers of unknown—but, ultimately, unsurprising—origin who are hunting down the participants in the assassination. His former colleague Cox (Mark Rylance) informs him that the other shooters have been killed. The only other person who knew about the plan is Felix, who now lives in Spain and is married to Annie.
There's obvious tension between the three. Felix hides Jim's return to their lives from Annie. Annie reacquaints herself with Jim, apparently under orders from Felix, who feels guilty about the way things went down in Congo. Felix stumbles around drunk while trying to deal with his sham of a marriage and his continuing jealousy of Jim.
The conflict of the love triangle here is so awkward and unconvincing that we're relieved when it comes to a predictably violent end. Yes, it also means the end of any attempt on the part of the screenplay by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, and Penn (based on the novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette) at providing anything resembling depth for these players, but when that characterization is as shallow as it is here, the flying bullets are a welcome escape.
At this point, the movie switches to auto-pilot, with Jim tracking down a vast conspiracy against him with the help of an old friend played by Ray Winstone and a metaphor-happy Interpol agent played by Idris Elba (Both of whom make their roles intriguing by way of their simple presence). Director Pierre Morel is certainly competent at staging the resulting action sequences, no matter how silly or contrived the circumstances may become. Jim and Annie trapped inside a flaming bathroom is the first such example but certainly not the last. A game of cat-and-mouse through the bowels of a bullfighting stadium (not to be confused with an earlier chase through the bowels of an aquarium—lots of bowels of buildings here) is particularly ridiculous for the Rube Goldberg-like machinations of gradually positioning a bull to take out a villain.
These are brutal and bloody shootouts and fights. They work to a certain extent, although the degree of brutality seems to become a crutch to compensate for the lack of any real stakes or genuine tension. Speaking of which, Jim has a medical condition that makes him forgetful and could lead to his death if he undergoes too much stress. The screenplay, of course, only uses the condition when it's a convenient way to create arbitrary tension.
The context established by the movie's opening sequences casts a long shadow over all of it, too. We never believe Jim as a hero in search of redemption, and the movie's outright abandonment of the crisis in Congo (until a pat bit of moralizing from a news anchor at the end) only helps in making him seem irredeemable. The Gunman is crafty but in desperate need of a conscience.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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