If you like your action, then you should have heard of Pierre Morel: he’s the man who directed Taken, one of this century’s very best action films (probably the best if the Bourne films never happened). Morel’s latest, The Gunman, features another unlikely actor turned hard man, this time Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River, 21 Grams). Penn plays Jim Terrier, who provides security for UN workers in Congo, but off the books he’s a hitman for a shady mining corporation who exploit Congo’s political unrest for their own financial gain. During a top secret mission, Terrier murders Congo’s minister for mining and foreign trade, fleeing Africa to start a new life. Eight years later, and the sins of the past return to haunt Terrier when he is attacked by mercenaries for hire. Surviving, Terrier travels the globe to find out who wants him dead.
While Penn has starred in his fair share of thrillers, they usually have him running down corridors, occasionally firing a gun. Penn has never been cast in a John McLane or Bryan Mills role. With The Gunman, Penn is breaking limbs, stabbing people, dodging explosions, and at no point do you think he’s miscast. Terrier might be dog-eared, not as quick as he used to be, but take him on in a fight and you’ll end up worse. Terrier isn’t your paper thin, typical action hero either, there’s meat on his bones (literally, Penn’s spent a good long time down at the gym!). Before his final mission in Congo, Terrier planned to settle down with his girlfriend, to be a peacekeeper, not just a man with a gun. All of this was taken away from him when he fled his old life, spending the last eight years going from country-to-country; no real home and no purpose.
Whether you like your action films or prefer something a little less noisy, you can’t argue that Morel is a talented filmmaker. At times, The Gunman is gorgeous to look at, especially when the narrative moves to Barcelona or Spain’s vineyards. Some action films have this point-and-shoot, B-movie look; with The Gunman every frame looks polished, resembling a European art house drama.
Morel also knows how to film fight scenes. No dumbed down, 12A cutaways here, this is violent, no holds barred, fist fighting. My complaint with action films over the last decade is the editing; it’s so fast, usually filmed on shaky handheld cameras, you can’t tell what the hell’s going on. The editing in The Gunman is outstanding, the fights, the chases all satisfyingly brutal and pulse racing. You get to appreciate the choreography, that Terrier is this killing machine, using anything and everything around him, taking someone out within seconds. The Gunman has some impressive backdrops for the action, which Morel takes full advantage of; the film’s standout scene being its climax in a bullfighting ring, the layout of the arena used to full affect, making for a tense finale with plenty of moments you don’t usually see in a run-of-the-mill testosterone-fest.
The Gunman’s only problem is the script. It’s not as threadbare as the screenplays for some action films, but the basic plot sees Penn going to one country and asking someone if they know anything, then travelling somewhere else and asking the same question. There’s a welcome subplot involving Jasmine Trinca as Terrier’s ex, who has started a new life for herself – Trinca’s not your typical love interest who runs around screaming, she has brains as well as beauty, particularly in the film’s showdown where she pretends to be drugged so she escapes her kidnappers – as well as taking time to highlight the situation in Congo, and countries like it, where the West’s demands for minerals and jewels are the number one concern, the lives of Congo’s population being a miles behind second, but for most of the running time Penn does the same thing over-and-over. It’s not too much of a problem, Morel does just enough to distract you, but after half-an-hour you realise there’s a pattern here.
The Gunman is intelligent and impressively well-made, with Sean Penn a credible grizzled tough guy. If you like things that go bang and people being beaten up in inventive ways, then you should see Morel’s latest; The Gunman is one of the best actioners in a while.
4 out of 5