Thursday, 23 April 2015

Movie Review: The Gunman (2015)

Sean Penn is one of those legendary Hollywood actors that even if you’ve somehow managed to never see anything that they’ve been in, you most certainly know the name at least in passing. As someone whose knowledge of cinema mostly consists of what came after the year 2000, it should come as no surprise that I’m not as familiar with Penn’s work as I should be. Outside of some surface knowledge about his relationship with Madonna and how badly that ended up, I’ve only seen him in one other film to my knowledge: 2013’s Gangster Squad, where he was exceptionally awesome as the enemy gangster Mickey Cohen. In fact, that performance was just that good that I’m actively excited about this based on that alone. So, how does Penn turn out in what looks like an attempt to Takenize him, what with this being directed by the same guy who made Neeson a modern day action fixture? This is The Gunman.

The plot: Eight years after carrying out an assassination in the Congo, Jim (Sean Penn) finds himself targeted by his former employers. With the help of his mentor Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his old girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), he has to track down his liaison Felix (Javier Bardem) to get some answers, provided that the hitmen sent after him and his on-going head trauma don’t get to him first.

This is a damn good cast, plain and simple. Sean Penn is stone-cold brilliant in this thing, working with his mentally-damaged in several respects protagonist and making it fit great with the bad-ass mercenary; if the rumoured Kane & Lynch film ever gets off the ground, Penn would be my draft for Lynch based on well he does here. Javier Bardem has built a pretty healthy pedigree for playing bad guys (yeah, *spoilers* I guess) in films like No Country For Old Men and Skyfall, but here he portrays more of a pathetic-drunkard class of antagonist and still carries it with the same conviction he did with Anton and Raoul, even if his accent occasionally fails him. Ray Winstone, who has a definite knack for British gruffness, does his man-of-few-words thing here to great effect and makes for some really good interactions with Penn. Probably the only weak point in the cast, unfortunately, is Idris Elba as Interpol agent J Barnes. Not to say that he’s bad here by any stretch, as Elba is and will always be awesome; it’s just that he isn’t the film nearly enough, which is weird considering he gets second billing in the opening credits next to Sean Penn. It’s definitely misleading, but Elba manages to get the most out of the one-and-a-half scenes he’s given here so I’m at least glad with what we got.

A quick look at the plot synopsis, and I’m not sure about anyone else but one thing immediately came to my mind: 80’s action movie. Seriously, ‘mercenary who gets betrayed by his employers’ is one of the all-time biggest clichés of the genre, right up there with one-liners and never needing to reload your weapons. It hits some of the same beats from an awful lot of straight-to-DVD action fodder, like the numerous betrayals that occur, and yeah I’d be lying that if I said this didn’t feel derivative. Actually, even beyond the plot similarities, this film also carries some of that genre-weirdness that I associate with the action scene from back then. Some of it shows up in Elba’s initial scene with Penn which is filled with that hackneyed metaphor-laden mock dialogue that got eye-rolls back then and, despite how well he performs it, gets eye-rolls now. The rest of the odd moments come out of the finale, which takes place at a Barcelonan bull-fight (yeah, they don’t do those anymore, but the film admits that itself to be fair): Between the juxtaposition of Jim with the bull, to the way that the big bad guy is dispatched at the end, it can get more than a little goofy at times.

However, despite the admittedly samey plot and dopey moments, what ultimately makes this film work is the writing of Jim’s character and Penn’s excellent performance as him. One of my bigger issues with last year’s American Sniper was the rather weak portrayal of the titular character’s PTSD, and this movie further proves that point by doing it so damn well. Between the editing, sound mixing and Penn’s acting chops, the way Jim’s head trauma is shown to be affecting him throughout the film is headache-inducing in all the right ways. The reason why Penn’s performance is as good as it is is that he is able to balance this rather debilitating aspect of his character with the side of him that can hold his own in a fight without it coming across as disjointed in any way. Penn may be getting on in years (I commented as soon as I left the theatre that Penn looked great for his age, until I found out that he was actually younger than I thought he was) but he’s still in great shape and he looks like the kind of guy who can kick mass amounts of ass (and does, amazingly well); more so than Liam Neeson can in any of the films I’ve seen him in, at any rate. Actually, while I’m on a mild tangent about Taken, director Pierre Morel seems to have pulled off the same trick he did with Neeson and unlocked some dormant action hero in our lead actor; if this ends up being the start of a similar career revival for Penn, this certainly shows a lot more promise than Taken ever did.


All in all, this marks my first proper diversion from the critical consensus: I really enjoyed this film. The acting is top-notch, even if Idris Elba is kind of ridiculously underutilized, the action beats are brutal and visceral fun and the depiction of Jim’s head trauma worked exceptionally well to add to the overall work. It may have a pretty clichéd plot and more than a few out-of-place moments, but the production handles both of these lesser points remarkably well; this isn’t about having a deep and involved plot, it’s about seeing an action protagonist mow down his enemies while clearing his own name, while fighting his own mental ailments. It’s better than Jupiter Ascending, as the script problems here are nowhere near as plentiful, but on that same note it ranks below the similarly-maligned Manny Lewis, which had more emotional weight to the main character than is found here. I may be in the minority for this one, but I am recommending checking this one out regardless, especially for those who have a taste for action but are getting tired of Neeson’s output.

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