Hey, I like a good grown-up story of international intrigue as much as the next guy. Even better if it involves lots of exotic locations and stylishly executed shoot-outs.
Unfortunately someone must have used that description, alone, as the treatment for The Gunman, perhaps with the postscript “oh and lots of shirtless Sean Penn.” (They got that last one done, so thoroughly that people in my screening started chuckling halfway through.)
The Gunman is a pretty dumb movie in smart packaging, bookended by some kind of half-hearted critique of Westerners who strip the African continent of its natural resources and interfere with other people's politics. That topic is complex and esoteric enough that it would be great to see a careful movie on the topic, with or without Penn's famously lefty politics pushing the conversation forward. Balancing corporate gain, political interests, and other matters is not something handled well by abstract examples; a well-written story could illuminate some of the complexities and help people understand what's at stake. There are deep, tragic consequences to the excesses of capitalist hubris, especially when combined with philanthropy, that all audiences—especially Christian ones—ought to care about.
But The Gunman elects instead to use the situation as the story itself, making it fit around the edges of a romance and a mystery and a bunch of fancy set pieces. Directed by Pierre Morel (best known for Taken) and with a screenplay based on a novel by French crime writer Jean-Patrick Marchette, the movie is clearly trying to be more than the sum of its parts. But these are boring characters, with silly dialogue. Here is a sample: a woman walks into a room and says, “I'm here to take a shower.” “Yeah, you'd better take a shower,” her irate husband replies. Scintillating.
Penn (who at age 54 does admittedly have scary-big biceps) plays a former special forces assassin who posed as a humanitarian aid worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then messed up an assassination and went on the run. Now he has PTSD and is being hunted himself. It takes a while to figure all of this out, which means the movie wastes precious time that ought to be spent convincing the audience to care about this guy on making the audience try to track down what it is they're watching. That kind of confusion can be used to great effect—but here it's just confusing, and also distracting.
The camera work is engaging, and the locations are, indeed, exotic, from the DRC to Barcelona, and culminating in a bullfighting ring, so the film is at least fun to watch, visually. (Though it's worth noting that bullfighting, as the credits acknowledge, has been banned in Barcelona for years.) And Penn is a good actor; however Javier Bardem, who always seems like a loose cannon, is much more engaging as his rival/friend. Unfortunately he doesn't get much screen time, nor do bizarrely underused Idris Elba, Mark Ryland, and Ray Winstone.
Finally, I'm sorry: what is up with the love story in this film? Jasmine Trinca is a strong actress and her character is apparently a very remarkable woman—people keep saying so—but she has almost nothing to do in this movie except get saved by big strong guys, whimper, and scream. We know she is a doctor involved in humanitarian work, but that work gets maybe three minutes of the story. Hello? Is this 2015? Can a “remarkable woman” get some time to do something remarkable on screen?
There is some kind of moral lesson buried in this film about atoning for one's past, but it's used ineffectively. That is the tragedy of The Gunman—the film is overly serious about itself, but essentially disdainful of its audience. They don't want complicated politics or, heaven forbid, feelings to get in the way of their shoot-em-up weekend entertainment. Thankfully, the movie sidesteps the kind of obviously exploitationist stuff it could have contained (Trinca is not required to spend too much time in her underwear), but it's uncomfortable, and not in a good way.
By now, we know that guns don't make a movie. (Neither do biceps.) Movies can't just be pretty pictures and explosions. You're better off staying home and rewatching an old favorite.
Bad language and graphic (sometimes quite uncomfortably so) fight scenes every five minutes or so, involving lots and lots and lots of guns, knives, fire, bulls, thumbs, fists, and eyeballs. Two unmarried characters are seen in bed together. Later, two characters have sex (not graphic, but obvious), and one is married. People get drunk. Continents are stripped of their natural resources.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.