Based on the novel ‘The Prone Gunman’ by John Patrick Manchette, Pierre Morel’s The Gunman is a long-winded but enjoyable political thriller and action film set all over the world.
John Terrier (Sean Penn) is an ace marksman from an assassination squad hunkered down in the Republic of Congo, but after killing the Minister of Mines, Terrier is forced to leave the continent, his girlfriend, and his friends to escape retribution. Eight years later, Terrier finds himself on the other side of the barrel, hunted like his squad-mates by persons unknown, and must throw himself once more into the fray.
You know what you’re getting with a film like this, its Sean Penn moving country to country, gathering information and killing anyone who gets in his way. Even though this is from Morel, the man who directed Taken and From Paris With Love, you won’t find the steely entertainment of Neeson, or the bombastic nonsense of Travolta, instead, there’s an obvious desire to keep things has rigidly in the thriller domain as possible without going full-fun. Penn is great and weaves his way through the film trying to deliver something more than the script has in mind, dealing with shell-shock and the physical trauma left by a life of danger. Even without Penn, the cast is a pleasure to watch. Javier Bardem’s Felix is an intriguing character, a drunk and a manipulator, but once he leaves the scene, there’s still Ray Winstone, and two minor but memorable appearances from Idris Elba and Peter Franzen to enjoy. Mark Rylance is an odd but great co-star in particular, slowly closing in on perfect villain territory but never quite getting there.
Dodgy dialogue can be waved in favour of a good pace and some superb set-pieces; Penn never seems more on top than when he’s navigating a gun fight, always thinking, always staying a step ahead, and it’s the effortless ease of the action that saves the film from boredom. A climactic knife fight is fast as hell, whilst an assault on Felix’ villa is more thinky than shooty. Smart decisions put a definite end to the fight where other films may leave plot-holes and bullet holes strewn throughout their never-ending combat sequences.
Visually the film is a bit dismissible, but musters the strength for a great slow motion sniper shot at the start of the film, which is both messy and oddly shocking. This shot sets a tone. Morel has glazed The Gunman with a real respect for blood and just how much can be shed during the course of a fight, which is nice to see when so many thrillers leap-frog the realities of the human body and treat hero-fodder like plastic automatons.
Rylance seems poised to be a great villain, but the film’s ultimate message about the machinery of war and finance means no one person can be blamed, which is a trampled finale and an arguably anti-cinematic one. The Gunman is an adventure with high points and lows, but it comes out as unfortunately average by the final curtain.
Stars: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba