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Little to like about Penn and his latest film, ‘The Gunman’

Sean Penn has always had trouble seeming likable.

It isn’t that he isn’t likable, mind you. My guess is that his friends new and old (which includes, in the latter category, the Sheen boys, Charlie and Emilio Estevez) think the world of him.

It’s just that something ingratiating and essential in most actors just isn’t there.

Take his badly misfired joke at the Oscars, when he announced “Birdman” as the winner of Best Picture. He made a Green Card joke about its director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu without any understanding whatsoever that the majority of the home audience had no idea the men were friends and that Penn, in fact, had made a film with him before the rapid ascent of Inarritu’s reputation. No ethnic slur was intended, despite how it came out.

It’s not that Penn doesn’t know how to please (think Spiccoli in “Fast Times in Ridgemont High”). It’s just not a talent he values very highly. If George Clooney doesn’t know how NOT to please sometimes, Penn, deep within, seems to abhor doing it. And that abhorrence has gotten in his way as a serious actor sometimes – in, for instance, his resounding failure in the remake of “All the King’s Men” where he simply didn’t understand the charisma of the man he was playing.

There’s no way that Sean Penn could claim that he was just a hireling passing through as the star of “The Gunman.” He’s just not a mercenary making a musclehead action movie – a late arrival in the Liam Neeson business. He’s not only a co-producer of the thing along with its star but he gets one of the movie’s three writer’s credits too.

Oy.

If ever there were a credit you wouldn’t want clogging up your site on IMDB, it’s a writer’s credit on “The Gunman.” The script is the thing that’s most wrong with it.

But it’s not the only thing by a long shot. Directed by Pierre Morel – who directed Neeson’s “Taken” – it has a lot of incoherent action scenes full of punch’n’crunch sound editing but too incoherent visually for the audience to know just who is doing exactly what to whom at every second.

This the post-modern type of film action editing, but I must say that when used as badly as it is here, it can become very annoying. To be sure, it denotes violence taking place but it also withholds crucial information from us – who has done what damage in a fight, and who has been hurt the most before the dramatic finale of it.

It’s anti-human in its way. Which is, no doubt, the exact opposite of why Penn wanted to make this movie in the first place.

Many have expressed considerable perplexity about that very thing but I think I get it. This is, in its way, what the ancient Hollywoodians used to call “a message picture.”

It wants to tell you that a lot of rotten Western mercenaries have descended on Africa pretending to have pure impulses but are actually there to exploit the continent’s incredibly rich natural resources.

The place it all begins is the Congo, where Penn, in a Sylvester Stallone or Steven Seagal upgrade, plays a guy crucially involved in the assassination of the Congolese mining commissioner. He was the man controlling its vast resources.

Skip eight years, during which our assassin has tried to go straight, even though he had to leave his girfriend behind. Someone then puts a contract out on Penn.

Figuring out who takes him to London, then Barcelona and Gibraltar. It also takes turns giving us a cast about 400 times better than a misfired action movie like this deserves – Javier Bardem (who’s terrific, the best thing in the movie), Mark Rylance (who’s almost as good), Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba with about 15 lines of dialogue at the end.

People run around. Shots are fired, bones are crunched, things go boom and burst into flame. A big scene at a bullfight winds up with a bull ending the battle.

It’s all minimally engaging hooey which Penn seems to have justified making because it had a politically conscious message about First World exploitation of Third World countries.

When Penn stars in a movie it probably isn’t hard to get people like Bardem, Elba, Rylance, Winstone and Co. on board.

The result is just about as impressively populated a piece of junk as you’ll ever see.

If you happen to catch it absentmindedly on cable sometime, the action scenes might convince you to stay with it. And the performances of Bardem, Winstone, Rylance and – as brief as it is – Elba are worth seeing.

There is an art, though, to selling out. If you do it, you have to do it to please. You can’t try to get away with it by convincing yourself that your motives are pure and you’re doing good in an exploited and brutalized world.

A good man, Sean Penn. It’s always amazing, though, what a hard time he has convincing the world of it.

The Gunman
Two Stars
Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba
Director: Pierre Morel
Running time: 115 minutes
Rating: R for language, some sex and much violence.
The Lowdown: Hired assassin is hunted down eight years later for dark deeds in Africa

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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