The Gunman

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 20, 2015

Sean Penn stars in 'The Gunman'
Sean Penn stars in 'The Gunman'  

Pierre Morel's adaptation of Jean-Patrick Monchette's novel "The Gunman" shows its literary roots early and often, and manages to sustain an air of realism far longer than most action movies. But then the film embraces the action genre whole-heartedly, and realism goes out the window.

Still, it's an intelligent ride, at least to start out with; sense and wit may escape the film like air leaking from a balloon, but it's such a slow leak that you find yourself going along with its increasingly preposterous scenarios.

Beginning at the beginning: Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a mercenary working for an entity he refers to as "the company," is chosen to be the triggerman in an assassination plot targeting a minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo whose actions threaten international mining concerns. Terrier is selected out of a team of three ready and willing snipers by a civilian co-conspirator named Felix (Javier Bardem), and it's not hard to guess why: Felix has eyes for Jim's girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). The guy who pulls the trigger is to be extracted from Congo post haste, which means that Jim will be out of the picture and Annie will be there for Felix to woo.

The operation goes smoothly enough; the aftermath not so much. We don't see a lot of the resulting chaos, but we do hear about it -- plenty; from Felix's guilt-ridden anguish to eager media reportage to Annie's own injured silence around what happens to her, we gather that Jim's single bullet wreaked enormous carnage on an entire nation.

This being a Sean Penn movie (the actor also executive produced), we might expect to see a little good-old fashioned liberal hand-wringing about the imperialist West and capitalism careening brutally out of control. That would be warranted; alas, that would also be another movie. Eight years elapse, and Jim, seeking to do penance, returns to Congo, this time as an aid worker helping to dig wells. When a group of well-armed men arrive at his work site looking for "the white man," Jim quickly puts two and two together and realizes that someone wants him dead for his part in the assassination. But who? And why now?

This is where the film sheds its grimy social drama skin and begins its transformation into a slick super-hero caper, with Jim outwitting, out-fighting, and out-gunning wave after wave of killers, hard-faced professionals who pursue him from one country to another. Along the way, Jim reunites with Annie and learns that he's suffering from a debilitating neurological condition -- the result of all the years he's spent in war zones.

The cast is stuffed with A-list actors of mature years and refined talents, including not just Penn and Bardem, but also Mark Rylance and Ray Winstone, but it's Reiniger, a younger, hotter agent of death and destruction played by a Finnish actor, the certifiable hunk Peter Franzťn (of the trans love drama "Open Up to Me"), that becomes Jim's number one nemesis. With the surety of a James Bond adventure, Jim and Reiniger face off time and again until their final showdown in the labyrinthine warrens of a bullfighting stadium. (The bull and matador dance on the sidelines, glaring metaphors for the elite killer-style fisticuffs.)

"The Gunman" fires the sort of magic bullet that allows this film to spin its way from sober to loopy by the middle of the second act. What's remarkable isn't how the movie slides into dumb action and trite execution, but how close it comes to hitting the target in spite of itself.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.