Monday, March 30, 2015

The Gunman

Alternate Title:  The Bourne Encephalopathy

One sentence synopsis:    An ex-PMC contractor for a mining consortium must go on the run when the company decides to clean up loose ends regarding an assassination in Kinshasa.

Things Havoc liked:  Sean Penn is a raving asshole. We all know this. But he's also a multi-academy-award-winning actor and filmmaker, and consequently when a movie of his comes out, it's only polite to pay attention. That holds true even when the movie in question looks like a completely generic MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW movie (once again everyone, that stands for Middle-Aged-Everyman-Who-Is-Secretly-A-Massive-Badass-And-Kills-Everyone-Who-Threatens-His-Women). This isn't exactly the genre that I normally associate with someone like Sean Penn, but then we are talking about the man who made both Shanghai Surprise and I Am Sam, so perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked. But what really attracted me to this film was the supporting cast, a murderer's row of favorite actors of mine including Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Ray Winstone. I would watch those three (plus Sean Penn) starring in a laundry commercial, and was reasonably confident I could stomach their take on the Taken/Equalizer/John Wick genre.

And yet, to my surprise, that's not what I was given. The trailers all pointed to another MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW entry (my third in six months), but instead, The Gunman takes its cue not from Taken but from international super-spy thrillers in the vein of movies much better than Taken such as The Bourne Identity or Hannah or the Daniel Craig-helmed 007 movies, movies in which elite special forces-trained agents comprised entirely of vivified asskickium travel the globe to strange and exotic locales to investigate secret goings on, evade the surveillance of hundreds of cameras, drones and satellites controlled by stern-looking headset-wearing men in dark, monitor-filled rooms, and occasionally stop in abandoned factories, old-world apartment buildings, or infrastructure tunnels beneath major landmarks so that they may beat the ever-loving piss out of one another using some cinematic combination of krav maga and ninjitsu. Of course at 54, Penn is older than the actors one typically sees in these sorts of movies, but has been aggressively working out to prepare for it, and plainly wants you to know about it. The upshot is that despite being atypical for the role in question, this is Sean Penn, and he does a fine job by twisting the role away from a fresh super-spy and into a retired one. Indeed, far from shying away from Penn's age, the filmmakers make it a central point of the movie, having him diagnosed with various sorts of chronic concussion-related syndromes that should be familiar to anyone who follows the NFL, the consequences of a life spent doing the sorts of things that heroes in these kinds of movies customarily do.

Pierre Morel, director of the original Taken and District 13, takes the helm here as director, and his intention is plainly to split the difference between Taken's MAEWISAMBAKEWTHW-ness and District 13's frenetic parkour-laden action. The result feels like an "adult" version of Taken's middle age power fantasies, with a nice helping of John leCarre-style real-world grit mixed in, thanks to a plot that centers around an assassination attempt on a member of the Congolese government at the behest of a PMC working for international mining cartels. Ray Winstone plays the same character Ray Winstone always plays (I say this with the utmost respect), a gravel-voiced looming indeterminate badass who does whatever he wishes despite the hero's (or villain's) opinions on the subject. Javier Bardem meanwhile, who has far more of a range, plays against the trailers by portraying a drunken asshole in the vein of his from Skyfall Bond Villain, a morose, bitter jackass who resents Penn for the mess they were all involved in in Central Africa and who is cognizant, moreso than most of the price to be paid. Great actors cover a great deal, as always, and it's a reasonable amount of fun just watching these guys gyrate around one another in a typical modern spy plot.

Things Havoc disliked:  Unfortunately, that's about all there is to be had in this movie, as beyond the idea of making a movie with Penn as Jason Bourne, the filmmakers did not seem to have any idea what they wanted to actually do here.

The Gunman is an extremely generic film. Not the one that was advertised in the trailer, mind you, but generic nonetheless, one that has little to say and no real idea of what they should actually do with what little they have. Only this level of bafflement could possibly explain why they would go through the trouble to hire Idris Elba, a bad man if ever there was one (I say this also with the utmost respect), feature him prominently in the promotional materials and the trailer, and then use him in a two-minute cameo role that effectively amounts to one scene in which a mysterious, unknown man sits down on a public bench next to our hero and tells him personal details about his own life as a way to hint that he may wish to take a certain course of action. How people keep misusing Idris Elba I will never understand, but if you are a fan, as I am, be forewarned that he is more or less not in this movie at all.

Nor is there anything to replace him with. Shakespearian veteran and reliable sleazeball (once more with utmost respect) Mark Rylance portrays the villain, such as it is, but the script is so poor of imagination that he cannot think of any plot to engage in other than the tired kidnap-the-woman-the-hero-loves routine, following which he meets with the hero in a cinematic location and dutifully sends his henchmen to kill him one by one in reverse order of previous screentime. His lengthy monologues on the rudiments of power and cynicism, however well delivered, are absolutely interminable, until we begin to wonder if he intends to bore the hero to death, as he is doing to us. The entire concussion angle, supposedly the very thing that separates the movie from its peers, is used for nothing but convenient weaknesses to apply to the hero at strategic moments, as Penn makes no visible effort to avoid getting hit in the head or blown through windows by concussion grenades, nor suffers any consequences from doing so save when the plot requires it. Meanwhile, the love interest, played by way-too-young-for-Sean-Penn Jasmine Trinca, has no purpose save the one I just mentioned. There is not even a tendentious effort to tie her into the plot, or to allow her to do anything but serve as a convenient hostage or prop during the obligatory action sequences. The entire process feels like a paint-by-numbers exercise, as if all of the actors involved just wanted an excuse to take a holiday in Spain for a while.

Final thoughts:   The Gunman is one of the most routine films I've ever seen, a movie that exists because it must, competently performing the required steps that movies like this involve before the lights come up and we can all go home. As an excuse to watch actors I like doing their thing alongside pretty cinematography and decent action, I suppose there are worse examples. But given Sean Penn, an actor whose obsession with good works and left-wing politics borders on the maniacal, I confess to complete confusion as to why it was made. This is the sort of movie that Liam Neeson has made a habit of making in recent years, a movie designed to showcase his ability to beat up and/or kill people as well as seduce women considerably younger than himself. Sean Penn's ego is planet-sized, but I cannot envision the same person who made Dead Man Walking and Mystic River feeling the need to show off like this. Perhaps I've managed to underestimate the man's ego, or perhaps he (and his co-stars) all needed paychecks, but the resulting film is almost aggressively ordinary, and contains nothing, however well done, that any moderate film fan hasn't seen a hundred times before.

Go see the Gunman if you're a hardcore Sean Penn addict, or if you absolutely have to see something this time of year (as I did). But if you're one of the many people free from either of these torments, then my suggestion would be to keep counting down the days before you can watch Avengers 2.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  A decent into raving madness.  And a whole lot of vodka.

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