Like it or not, Taken was a hit. To date, it’s grossed over $220 million. So, Pierre Morel may now be trying to recreate that success in his new action flick, The Gunman. Sean Penn is the latest actor to imitate Liam Neeson, offering his take on the tough as nails war veteran. Unfortunately, due to a lightly written script and breakneck pacing, it passes by in somewhat of a blur. Walking away, even the most diehard action fans will struggle to describe what just happened.
This is surprising, given that it’s based upon the novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette. It also makes the process of reviewing somewhat difficult. The film opens with a barrage of pseudo-news clips. These set the scene in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where civil war has reached its peak. Western corporations have a vested interest in prolonging this, seeing as it allows access to the country’s natural resources. As a result, the assassination of peaceworkers is paramount. This is where our protagonists come in…
Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is a member of a special team designed to carry out such tasks. After completing his last ‘job’, he has no choice but to flee the continent, leaving behind the love of his life, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Flash forward 8 years, and Terrier finds himself hunted by unknown forces. In order to escape, he must reunite with members of his old team. But which of these can be trusted? Who wants him dead? And what is the link to the events in the Congo?
In many contemporary film reviews, it has become commonplace to incorporate like-dislike patterns of value judgment. However, these tell us little about the film itself. It would be easy to label Gunman as ‘bad’, but doing so offers little insight into why it’s just not worth one’s time. It would also be dismissive of the numerous things that director Pierre Morel actually gets right.
For starters, no self-respecting action film would be complete without a strong dose of violence. Morel started his career as a cinematographer, working on 2002’s The Transporter. That experience is clearly displayed here. In the numerous fight scenes, Morel positions the camera painstakingly close to the actors. Sweat drips from Terrier’s forehead as he wrestles for a combat knife. Blood splashes his face whilst jamming it into an enemy’s throat. Morel doesn’t shy away from the gory details, and for action fans, what could be better? There’s an inventiveness to Terrier’s kills that’s rare in typical blockbusters. After all, it isn’t every day that you see a man trampled to death at a Spanish bullring.
Sadly, it’s difficult to credit the film beyond the voyeuristic thrill of violence, and given its stellar cast, that isn’t said lightly. It’s a spectacular lineup that assembles some of the best talent from across the globe. Sean Penn has not one, but two Oscars under his belt. Javier Bardem has another, and Trinca is arguably one of Italy’s finest young actresses. But the film’s blistering pace means that there’s never a chance to savour any of this. Characters enter and exit The Gunman‘s atmosphere before you can even draw a breath, and any tension is lost immediately.
Fast-paced action is all well and good, but this means nothing without spending the time to show why it is significant. Had Morel taken the time to establish the rivalry between the film’s oppositional forces, Terrier’s conflicts with former friends would have held more emotional weight. As it stands, the fights just keep coming and coming and coming and coming and coming, so it’s difficult to care who’s involved or why. Taken may be a flawed film, but at least we understood the depth of love between Bryan Mills and his daughter before the action gets underway. Here, that simply isn’t the case.
What’s more, Penn’s hard man persona is significantly hindered by his lack of backstory. Apart from the opening ‘job’, we learn next to nothing about his past actions. To some, this may seem minor, but motivations, desires and relationships with others are crucial to understanding someone as a human being. The absence is obvious. With so much killing and so little explanation, Jim Terrier may as well be Robocop.
There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ film; and anything can be ‘good’ if you enjoy watching it. That being said, films can be poorly made. They can be confusing, disorientating and tiresome. They can display events so fast you can’t keep track, and reduce talented actors to cheap thrills. The Gunman is one such film. Whilst action junkies may find some pleasure in the carefully choreographed fight scenes, it’s difficult to recommend to anyone else. So let’s put aside labels and just leave it at this – in aiming for Taken, The Gunman has most definitely missed its mark.