NPR logo 'The Gunman': The Tale Of A Do-Gooder Defined By His Pecs

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'The Gunman': The Tale Of A Do-Gooder Defined By His Pecs

Sean Penn as Jim Terrier in The Gunman. Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films hide caption

toggle caption Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films

Sean Penn as Jim Terrier in The Gunman.

Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films

In addition to being both a two-time Oscar winner and the director of the fantastic Into The Wild, Sean Penn is also heavily involved in an assortment of humanitarian causes. The second bullet point, more so than the first, may explain Penn's attraction to The Gunman, a dum-dum action picture that briefly pretends to be about world aid before returning to muscular, middle-aged men beating the snot out of each other.

Hold on those muscles for a second; certainly director Pierre Morel does. His camera lovingly lingers over his star's impressive pecs at every opportunity, including one scene where Penn jogs through a village at dawn clad only in a tight bathing suit. Morel surrounds him with several other good-looking gentlemen, not just co-stars Javier Bardem and Idris Elba but the nameless, hunky Spanish hit men gunning for Penn's life. There's exactly one woman on hand, an old flame played by Italian beauty Jasmine Trinca, but she's mostly in the way, tossed between locations like a rag doll while the men admire each other's deadliness.

But some might care about the people all these muscles belong to, so here goes: The story opens in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Jim Terrier (Penn) is working as both security detail for an NGO — that's nongovernmental organization — and secret mercenary for an energy conglomerate that wants a Congolese minister dead. When the moment comes, his aim strikes true, meaning he has to abandon his true love and get out of Dodge. But nine years later, he's back in the country, working for an organization that has something to do with water wells (not much is clear about them apart from generic do-goodery, indicating our antihero has reformed). When some gun-toting mercenaries arrive looking for "the white man," Jim suspects someone's placed a bounty on his biceps.

Jim's detective process involves a series of steps apparently designed to make the audience lose interest in the movie. First, he leaves the DRC so that he and his enemies can do the run-and-gun thing in London and Barcelona instead, which seems counterproductive if the goal is to bring attention to conditions in the DRC. Then he tracks down his former partners in crime, starting with the supremely talented Bardem, who's doing a one-note caricature of a sniveling drunk. No one is cracking jokes, by the way, not even Ray Winstone as a sympathetic brother-in-arms. The final insult comes at the two-thirds mark, when we remember we were promised Idris Elba and resign ourselves to the fact that someone with a far bigger fanbase than Penn will get only a glorified cameo.

The Gunman is based on a 1981 thriller novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Any hints of subversion in this genre story — the political immorality, a suggestion that Jim's paranoia is merely the result of severe head trauma — are snuffed out with improbable gunplay and rote speechifying. Apropos of nothing, the climax is held at a bullfighting ring. Perhaps someone will get gored?

The first Taken, also directed by Morel, had a more extreme trajectory. After a genuinely terrifying first act, it employed the action-movie conventions that turned star Liam Neeson into today's hottest middle-aged butt-kicker. The Gunman seems a clear attempt by Penn to follow in Neeson's footsteps to box office gold, with a sprinkle of Save The World to make everyone feel better. But it arrives only a week after Neeson's latest shooter, Run All Night, flopped in ticket sales. Someone is going to have to change his tactics, and it will take a lot more than ab workouts this time.

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