Aww, is Sean Penn very sorry for having destabilized an entire African nation and bringing about the deaths of countless innocent people? Apparently. A few years back, as a private security contractor — the nice way we say “mercenary” these days — he assassinated the Minister of Mining for the Democratic Republic of Congo, which ignited a civil war. To atone for his crime, these days he brings clean water to Congolese villages, and his naughtiest misdeed is sneaking out of the NGO compound against the advice of security to get in a little surfing before breakfast.
Now, though, someone who knows what he did is trying to kill him… and we should care for why? As Penn’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Gangster Squad) Jim Terrier runs around London and Barcelona and Gibraltar trying to dig up clues about who paid for the assassination, who else knows about, and who might want him dead because of it, all sorts of stuff crops up, like it’s meant to be a surprise, about Western corporate imperialism and the information about the nefarious, nation-busting exploits that he knows and could share with, say, a Congressional subcommittee pretending to care. But the fact is that this is a movie that wants us to sympathize with and root for a very bad man who could not ever pay off the wages of his sins. The Gunman makes it even more difficult to give Terrier a pass and cheer him on as he fights off – with guns and knives and fists and explosives — the anonymous even-badder guys in Kevlar who come after him when it brings in a level of realism unusual for action movies. You see, Terrier is suffering from postconcussion syndrome, the result of too many IEDs and grenades to the brainpan, which impairs him in body and mind in a way akin to early-onset Alzheimer’s. If The Gunman wants to be this unflinchingly pragmatic about the impact of the sort of life that Terrier has led, then it must also expect that we are going to be as no-nonsense in response. Which means we’re gonna figure Terrier pretty much deserves everything he’s got coming.
I suspect the film — based on a French novel and delivered up to us as a steaming pile of WTF by director Pierre Morel (Taken) — hopes we will at least care if Terrier’s former girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who had been a doctor with an NGO back in the day, survives this. She’s now with Terrier’s former gun-for-hire partner, Felix (Javier Bardem: The Counsellor, Skyfall), because, you know, that’s tragic for Terrier. But she’s still in love with Terrier, of course, because he’s the protagonist and that’s her job. Seriously, there’s an intriguing story to be told in how a selfless woman like Annie — who thought Terrier was merely hired security, not a soldier of fortune — would cope with the fact that she can’t seem to quit a bad man, but The Gunman has no interest in that story. Annie is merely a pawn, someone about whom it can be said, by the even-badder guys, “Give yourself up and we’ll let the girl go,” because that’s the most use a tired old piece of action junk like this one has for a smart, capable, thirtysomething “girl.”
The Gunman is apparently something of a labor of love for Penn, who also helped produce the film — perhaps he imagines it will help raise the profile of the truly appalling things that are going on in Africa in general and Congo in particular? If so, some very odd choices were made here. It might be, I dunno, slightly easier to sympathize with an African hero who is living with disasters imposed from the outside rather than expecting us to get all up in the feels of someone who helped fuck it up.