Since modern movie making began Hollywood executives have always looked upon something successful and wondered “How can we do it again”? Whether it was the rash of formulaic teen comedies in the '90s that followed “Clueless” or the attempts to clone the Japanese horror trope of “The Ring” or countless other examples, movie studios and producers haven't been able to help themselves avoid ridiculous levels of copycat syndrome. All you need to do is cast a similar star, hire a director to mimic the first film's tone, find a way to make it just different enough to seem “original” and you've got an easy product to market to a global audience. The latest trend producers can't seem to get enough of? Rip offs of the Liam Neeson blockbuster “Taken” and that”s likely why someone decided to option Jean-Patrick Manchette's 1981 novel “The Prone Gunman” as a movie in the first place. And what better way to recreate that magic than with the man who actually directed “Taken,” Pierre Morel himself?
To be fair, there are a number of differences between the two movies. “The Gunman” is loosely based on Manchette's work (“Taken” was an original screenplay) the very busy Liam Neeson (who has spent a good deal of time making other “Taken”-esque knocks offs) has been replaced with Sean Penn and the kidnapping element, which is a key part of the “Taken” franchise, isn”t present here. That being said, Sean Penn is playing a former mercenary/hit man with a particular set of skills that make him a tough target to take down. He's an expert marksman who is able to kick ass across the European and African continents with almost superhuman effort and zero help. Sounds slightly familiar doesn't it?
Penn, who may have set a record for the most shirtless scenes by a male actor over 50 in one film, plays James “Jim” Terrier, a hired gun in the Republic of Congo working for a multinational corporation under the guise of positive endeavors. It's 2006 and Terrier has found the time to develop a romantic relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a Spanish doctor at a local free clinic who has no idea what his real job is, and he enjoys kicking back with his international crew including Felix (fellow Oscar winner Javier Bardem) and Cox (three-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance). After Congo's Minister of Mining announces plans to socialize the nation's rich national resources, the corporation decides the politician needs to be eliminated and Terrier is dealt the unlucky card of taking him out. Due to a clause in his contract, Terrier is immediately forced to flee Africa and Annie has no explanation as to why he's effectively left her at the alter.
Fast forward almost a decade later and Terrier is back in Africa helping an NGO build a fresh water supply for poor, underdeveloped seaside communities. During one trip outside the NGO's protected compound, he's attacked by a group of gunman sent to kill him and only him. Terrier survives and immediately heads to his home base of London to try and figure out who wants him dead. Looking up his surviving Congo co-workers for potential clues, he discovers Cox has now climbed the corporate ladder at his former employer while, much to his surprise, Felix is something of a start up entrepreneur living in Barcelona and is now – wait for it – married to Annie.
At this point, the movie is already overstuffed with silly red herrings that most moviegoers have seen countless times before. Most will start to ponder easy to answer questions such as: Will Terrier reunite with the love of his life? Will he discover who is actually trying to kill him? Will the audience figure out who this is before Terrier does? Will he kill an endless string of paid security forces instead of just doing the smart thing and approaching Interpol for protection? Will every action set piece continue to take place in one picturesque Spanish locale after another? The answers to all these questions are predictably, yes.
Morel may have some of the world's greatest actors are on hand for the proceedings, but he isn't creative enough to use their talents to effectively elevate the screenplay to something that transcends the modern day thriller formula he himself helped create. It's also unclear how much control he had over them. This award-winning ensemble seems to be doing whatever it wants which gives the picture an even more scattershot tone that it should have in the first place. Take for example, Terrier”s secondary storyline.
Early on we discover Terrier suffered from nausea and dizzy spells because of an increase of plaque build up in his brain. And, of course, he suffers these moments at the most inconvenient times! Often, while he”s being attacked by numerous gunmen! (It's the stress, of course). Penn refuses to phone any of this in and this makes his performance feels like it's meant for a completely different movie.
We wouldn't say Bardem is going for comic relief, but he appears to be the only one who isn't taking this seriously as he plays Felix as an over-the-top emotional wreck. Rylance is simply and utterly forgettable, Ray Winstone is typecast as playing a typical Ray Winstone character and Idris Elba shows up only to tease us about how much better this mess could be if he had a substantially larger role. Sadly, Trinca suffers the most. This is the acclaimed Italian actress' English language debut and her character is so underwritten that she comes off as a low rent Berenice Bejo clone.
Morel and his producers put forth a professional effort to provide “The Gunman” with a slick look and sell Barcelona and Gibraltar as appealing tourist destinations. They are assisted by Marco Beltrami's textbook 21st Century thriller score that makes sure the audience always knows what's around every single corner and some bland fight choreography which is arguably the most disappointing aspect of the movie.
Forgive us if we make the assumption that there were enough real-life NGO and Third World issues incorporated into the movie to make Penn feel like everyone involved wasn”t just spitting out another forgettable thriller for the International marketplace. Because, clearly, that's exactly what they were doing.
“The Gunman” opens nationwide on Friday.