There are films that are intentionally complex (take Shane Carruth’s Primer for example), laying down a dense mental challenge for the audience to unravel, then there are films that are intentionally convoluted (like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Inherent Vice), messing with the audiences understanding of simple, often tangential plotlines to intentionally obfuscate what’s right in front of them to craft out a unique mental experience, and then every so often a film like Pierre Morel’s The Gunman comes along, a film that opens so incompetently with a first 20 or so minutes that are so unintentionally incomprehensible and convoluted to someone who hasn’t seen the trailer that it is almost laughable. Thankfully, it rapidly relents after the poorly conceived opening, relaxing into the structural trappings of a more simplistic, obvious dumb action/thriller relic of the early 2000’s. Constantly overstepping the fine line between dumb thriller and action film that takes itself way too seriously, The Gunman follows Terrier (Sean Penn), a retired hitman-come-humanitarian haunted by the fallout of his last job, an assassination of a high ranking government official that saw heightened levels of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all in the name of financial gain. Upon returning to Congo (to help build wells that will supply the people with clean drinking water) Terrier encounters a hit-squad. After dispatching them swiftly, he travels the world in an attempt to uncover who wants him dead, and why (no points for guessing what this is in relation to), leaving a bloody trail in his wake.
When it comes down to it, this is pretty cookie-cutter stuff that jumps a little too hard on the kill-the-rich bandwagon of the post-Global Financial Crisis era. I really wish that the plot had been thrown out the window in favour of crafting a fun, anti-hero vs. the bad-guys experience. Too much of the bloated 2 hour runtime is spent establishing plotline and playing thriller when at the crux of the film, it is just a simple kill-em-all actioner. Studios have made great strides in this area with recent additions to the genre like Dredd and John Wick and we are no longer living the wasteland of the early 2000s where we have to pretend that every action film is intelligent1 and has a point or meaning – especially when everyone involved commits to the political agenda pushed so half-heartedly; honestly, if you need to be told that it is morally unjustifiable to create civil unrest in foreign regions and that it is wrong to directly profit off the deaths of others and through the creation of social inequality something is seriously wrong with you – and I don’t think Penn and company are losing any sleep over this, resting upon their beds made out of money.
It’s a shame that the film didn’t embrace what it had going for it – Cinema’s angriest man2 (Sean Penn) is in fantastic shape and is a worthy action lead in this era of older men kicking ass; some of the action sequences, especially in the latter half of the film, are really well executed, and the sound design is impeccable – every gunshot is a punch in the gut. Counter to this, however, is the dumb-as-nails plot, the beyond stupid dialogue, the terrible performances (definitely Javier Bardem’s worst yet), and the completely incompetent camera work that makes all of the hand-to-hand combat near incomprehensible – a lot can be learned from recent films like The Raid series or even Furious 7 in this arena. In all honesty, I could only really picture people enjoying the final third of this film, which thankfully is much better made than its preceding 80 or so minutes – it’s here that the bulk of the action set-pieces are unleashed and is also the only time that the film doesn’t really feel like it’s moving at a glacial pace. To call this movie a terrible experience seems harsh, this isn’t on par with something like last year’s sadistic-but-not-fun adaptation of The Equalizer, however to hold any illusion of this being a worthwhile or entertaining experience would be false.
I really wanted this to be a good film, Pierre Morel’s Taken is a great experience and I’m always hoping that the negative critical consensus around a lot of modern action films is wrong. Unfortunately The Gunman isn’t the film that every critic got wrong, in fact it has so little going for it that it’s more like the film that every critic got right (if its Rotten Tomatoes score is anything to go by). What is going on with recent ‘dads-doing-action’ films? They used to be so entertaining, but film’s like The Gunman seem to be the standard for most content coming out after the post-Taken golden years. Hopefully we’re going to see a second-coming or revival, it’s films like Non-Stop that give me hope for such an eventuality, but every time a Taken 3 or Gunman is released I get a little more doubtful.