I am willing to forgive action films of a few more cinematic missteps than I am of other films. As long as the action is gripping, fun, and somehow has a place within the story of the film it is easier to overlook other issues. The Gunman not only falls short on the action itself, but it offers little else for the audience to enjoy.
Directed by Pierre Morel, the man who directed 2008’s Taken, The Gunman shows some promise in its premise. Eight years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) a group of hired hitmen posing as a Non-Government Organization (NGO) successfully eliminate a corrupt politician. After their mission, the sniper who pulled the trigger, Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), must leave the country and his life behind in order to swiftly bury their crime. In present day, Jim is attacked with no warning, and knows that the new attempt on his life is connected with the hit back in the DRC. Jim spends the rest of the film tracking down the rest of his band of hitmen with the hopes of uncovering who wants him dead.
While this plot would suffice for a decent action film, Jim is given one unnecessary and prominently featured trait: his memory is terrible. From years in the Special Forces, taking many blows to the head, he has a terrible memory and keeps written or video records of nearly everything. This means that he conveniently has notebooks and videos of all of his missions, which means he has plenty of evidence to put him or his cohorts in prison indefinitely. Though at times this serves a small purpose in the film, for the most part it slows down the action and shows how inconsistent the film’s writing is. Jim remembers things when he needs to, but also needs to write them down when the plot calls for it. There is no real rhyme or reason to this, other than when the script calls for it.
The single female character in the film is also highly problematic. Annie (Jasmine Trinca) was working as a medic in the DRC, but in present day she has all of the personality of an armchair. She is used more like set-dressing or a tool for bartering than she is treated like a real person who can act and think on her own. In fact, in one scene she is drugged so that she does not run away from a bad guy, but it does not seem to be that much of a contrast to all of her previous scenes. To have only a single female character written first as an educated doctor or nurse then suddenly turn into a damsel in distress is highly problematic, and another example of the sloppy writing in The Gunman.
Some of these ills would be forgivable if the film had great action sequences. And though the shoot-outs and foot-chases are plentiful, they are incredibly tough to follow. Whenever the film starts to get interesting the camera gets shaky. Really shaky. The film’s score and the fact that we logically know that the characters are fighting or shooting tip us off to the action that is probably happening at that time, but the camera is too close and too unstable to see any of the action.
The one thing that The Gunman succeeds in is giving a strong proportion of screen time to Sean Penn’s pecks. While Annie is mostly covered in clothing throughout the film, Jim is almost always shirtless. A random early surfing scene that is never discussed again makes me think that there was a filmmaker brainstorm about the best way to showcase all of his physical training for the roll, and because of this, Jim’s chest is essentially the supporting actor in the film. Idris Elba is the second billed actor in the film, but sadly only briefly appears in three scenes.
The Gunman could have been a fun, albeit unoriginal, popcorn action flick. Just by making improvements in terms of its overall depth and action, this could have been something worthwhile for audience members who love this stuff. Instead, we are given a film with far too many sins to forgive.
Director: Pierre Morel
Film Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: March 20, 2015
Distributor: Open Road Films