When Sean Penn’s burnt-out ex-government contractor elicits the confession “I did some bad things” roughly half-way through this latest entry into the ‘geriaction’ arena, he could just as easily be talking about the spectacular miss-fire that he has been partly responsible for creating.
Pierre Morel’s second follow-up to his excellent, genre re-defining Taken, is an adaptation of Jean-Patrick Machette’s modern noir novel The Prone Gunman. Cast as ex-sniper Jim Terrier, Penn is forced into hiding when he himself becomes the target in the crosshairs and members of his former team begin to disappear. Whilst simultaneously trying to stay alive and uncover who is behind the shadowy attempts to silence him, Penn is also forced to protect the woman he loves - and was forced to leave nearly a decade earlier.
There is a clear attempt to raise The Gunman above the usual standard action fare on the market with a conspicuous desire to add some major thespian muscle to proceedings in order to ensure that this is no cheap rehash of the directors own modern classic that reignited Liam Neeson’s career in 2008. You will struggle to find a more impressive ensemble cast for any film this year let alone one that is part of a genre often looked down upon by the acting profession at large.
With political undertones and an approach that seeks to shine a light on government interference in the development of the third world - and the financial implications of doing so – it is hard to criticise the intentions of the film-makers, unfortunately for both Morel and Penn there is always a long divide between intention and execution and it is one that The Gunman never really manages to bridge.
There is certainly evidence of this being nothing more than a Penn vanity project - due in large part to the ubiquitous posturing and running around topless in order for us all to see what great shape he is in – but is only fair to point-out however, that he does manage to reach an emotional depth which lesser actors would struggle to find in such a role and it is testament to his unquestionable ability as an actor that he could never be accused of being anything other than ‘on-point’. His brooding intensity is a perfect match for the damaged and battle-weary Terrier and in itself allows The Gunman a compelling central performance - a performance that is supported superbly by Italian actress Jasmine Trinca in her first Hollywood role as Penn’s former lover Annie.
The relationship between the two characters adds some major emotional heft and comes across as a believable - and at times touching - romance that instantly sets it apart from the usual spy-trysts that are a staple of the Bond franchise in particular. There is a depth and strength to Annie that Trinca conveys through a subtle and damaged performance that completely works on every level. This central axis of Penn and Trinca is perhaps the films saving grace with Trinca in particular emerging from this with her CV notably enhanced - It’s just a shame she is so badly let down by the terrible supporting performances that surround her.
With an ensemble that features an embarrassment of riches that can boast Oscar wins, Tony awards and Bafta successes in abundance it is a great surprise that The Gunman contains some of the worst casting – and consequently performances - of the last millennium. Morel’s ambition is to be admired but he neglects to provide roles that actually suit the undoubted talent at hand. This is shoe-horning of big stars on name alone and it shows.
It almost appears as if the supporting players are having a personal competition to see who can be the most woefully miscast and whilst Ray Winstone would usually be the clear favourite after his previous ‘form’ in The Departed and Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull he’s actually far from the worst here. Yes, his long haired aide is Q-lite - an ally without the gadgets, humour or indeed anything of real substance to the plot overall - but he’s actually quite passable, particularly when compared to the spectrum of under and over acting displayed by both Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance.
Quite what Bardem is aiming for with such a mad-cap performance as Felix, - one of the former members of Penn’s team - is beyond me and it is almost shameful to see an Oscar-winning actor of this calibre over-act so badly. In what appears to be an attempt at portraying unhinged, Bardem instead just comes across as annoying and, quite frankly, a little silly. This is a far-cry from the disturbed, menacing villain he created in Skyfall and is the first nail in The Gunman’s coffin - a coffin that is finally lowered and covered in dirt by Mark Rylance who may be unknown to the majority of viewers but brings with him the status as one of the greatest stage actors of his generation. With what seems proof that stage talent doesn’t always transfer to the big-screen, Ryland is terrible and a fish out of water in every sense as he delivers a performance that bellies a man of such ability. At times it is almost painful to watch someone struggle in such a manner that makes it almost impossible to believe he has any acting experience at all. If nothing else, Ryland’s non-performance should serve as a reminder to film-makers at all levels that no matter the quality of the actor if you put him in the wrong role he will flounder like anyone else.
Despite the best efforts of Bardem and Ryland to entirely denigrate the supporting actor profession at least Idris Elba brings his usual excellence to a what is an almost cameo appearance. Elba doesn’t allow his lack of screen-time to hold him back as he delivers a restrained performance that provides mystery and ambiguity whilst also displaying his effortless screen presence and ensuring that even Penn is overshadowed in the brief scenes they share together. Whilst Bardem in particular seems to want to make his limited screen time more memorable and over-acts as a result, Elba is the personification of ‘less is more’ - but even he can’t save the blushes of the rest of the supporting cast.
Whilst the acting is patchy the set-pieces themselves are simply mundane, there is nothing wrong with a slow-burn narrative but these are usually punctuated by frenetic action or, at the very least, some level of excitement but - aside from the odd fleeting moment - the action in The Gunman feels a little pedestrian especially when held up against both the Bond and Bourne franchises that are quite clearly such an influence here. Whereas Bourne was doused with freshness and originality, and Bond has successfully reinvented itself for a modern audience The Gunman instead feels as though it is stuck on the ‘ctrl-alt-del’ screen when it comes to rebooting the action genre and doesn’t provide anything new. This type of film has been done before, and more pertinently, done better.
This leads us neatly back to analysing the intentions of the director and star and trying to determine what the purpose of this project was for either of them. In Morel’s case he seems to want to reinvent Penn in the same way he so expertly did with Neeson, and for Penn’s part he appears content for him to do so. The glaring difference this time is that whilst Neeson’s career really needed that reinvention at the time the same can’t really be said of Penn, who still has the stature and prestige to be above this sort of thing. His career was fine the way it was and not only is this a risk that doesn’t really pay off but it also seems to be a risk that didn’t even need taking in the first place.
Whilst there is more than enough interest to be had in Penn’s portrayal of a frazzled, burned-out operative haunted by the scars of his past and literally breaking-down in front of our eyes, it is, ultimately, nothing we haven’t seen before. Coupled with the almost criminal miss-casting of the majority of the characters it ensures that the film is simply plugging a gap until SPECTRE - the next entry in the Bond franchise - arrives in the autumn.
There are areas of merit here and Penn and Trinca in particular are worth a closer look but overall there is an over-hanging feeling that the good intentions have been let down by the poor casting and a lack of any real impact from the action sequences. If this was intended purely for Penn’s vanity then it hits the bulls eye, if however, it was supposed to be the latest addition to the growing anthology of impressive action thrillers of the last decade or so then The Gunman misses its target entirely.