Sean Penn creates mayhem and feel-bad vibes in ‘The Gunman’


Special To The Japan Times

Globalism has hit the action genre hard, and the movies coming out of the wreckage are apt to be more than a tad disappointing. We once knew (or were told to believe) that democracy was good, everything else was bad and Americans had the God-given right to go after profits abroad and protect their families at home.

Remember when that formula used to work? Now democracy is a joke, free enterprise sucks, money and violence go hand in hand wreaking havoc on the planet, and it’s every man for himself out there, regardless of ideology or country of origin. Such is the cynicism that penetrates the action genre nowadays, and if you’re in the mood for carnage and mayhem and innocent people dying by the boatload, look no further than “The Gunman.” If you do watch it though, a stiff drink — or two (or three) — is recommended, and prepare to settle into a “boy, do I feel bad” groove.

“The Gunman” has two things going for it: the star wattage of the central cast (Javier Bardem, Idris Elba and Ray Winstone) and the stunningly fit 55-year-old bod of its lead, Sean Penn. This two-time Oscar winner is also the co-writer and producer of the film, and he sank a great deal of his own cash into the project, according to online rumors. The director is Pierre Morel, who remade Irish gent Liam Neeson into a badass action star with “Taken.” Perhaps Penn was aiming for the same regenerating magic?

To be fair, it seems like Morel does everything that’s expected of him, and Penn certainly gives it his best shot, but the ground is so well-trodden it’s practically impossible to grow a patch of new grass on it. Everything about “The Gunman” feels recycled from 100 other vehicles in the action junkyard.

On the other hand, for Penn fans, “The Gunman” is an opportunity to see him play hardball and look good doing it. He stars as Jim Terrier, a mercenary who was hired years ago by an unknown client to assassinate the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining minister. Terrier was in it for the money, but later he hypocritically explains to others, and to himself, that he thought this act “was a good thing.” On the contrary, the killing led to a civil war, spawned tens of thousands of refugees and served to further American corporate interests in a country struggling to stand on its own. But Terrier was likely aware of that all along — as soon as the job is done, he ditches his aid-worker girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) and goes on the run.

A few years later, Terrier tries to atone for his sins by working as a volunteer at an African refugee camp. Penn is quite convincing in these scenes as he works hard to locate and secure clean water. (In real-life, Penn is famed for his aid work in Haiti.) But old sins insist on casting shadows, and Terrier finds himself the target of a mysterious hit squad that just won’t quit until he’s dead and lying in the dirt. To foil the killers and discover who is behind them, Terrier reconnects with his past and Annie. It turns out she’s now married to a former friend from the old days (Bardem), but still mightily concerned about her ex.

It’s not hard to figure out the rest, and who the real bad guys are. More difficult to fathom is why Penn would sign on for this project, unless this is his way of making a political statement. If so, this has got to be one of the most tortured, roundabout ways to do it. Penn is renowned for his humanitarian views and relief work, so a straightforward depiction of his politics would have been more to the point.

On the other hand, perhaps this was Penn’s way of sounding the alarm. Admittedly, a title such as “The Gunman” probably reaches a wider audience than, say, “The Aid Worker.” Even so, the movie has much to be desired and leaves a nasty aftertaste. That aid work and violence are often two sides of the same coin is an all too familiar scenario, but in “The Gunman” there’s little distinction between the pair.