“Don’t do anything stupid,” the old CIA pal Stanley (Ray Winstone) growls to his retired “Company” assassin friend.
Since we’ve seen this killer’s blackouts and dizzy spells, viewed his X-rays, and heard a doctor tell him to avoid any more concussions, head trauma or even loud noises, we know what constitutes “stupid.”
But naturally, that’s exactly what Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) does. He’s a guilt-ridden man whose efforts to atone for his past sins count for nothing when those sins come home to roost.
In “The Gunman,” Penn (one of the film’s producers) shoehorns a few of his pet causes — nongovernmental aid organizations, CIA interference in the Third World, and multinational corporate misconduct — into an utterly conventional assassin-hunted-by-assassins thriller.
It works better than it should because the high-mileage Penn playing a high-mileage killer is an easy fit, and Penn has chops.
But “Gunman” plays like a vanity project for an actor long past his vanity-project age. With every shirtless moment (he even surfs in the Congo), every dramatic drag on his ever-present cigarette, every scene with the do-gooder doctor who “got away” (Jasmine Trinca), Penn tests our reserve of goodwill.
Terrier was the trigger man in the team shooting of a Congolese official who was interfering with rapacious multinational mineral corporations. Eight years later, he’s digging wells to get fresh water for the villages there. And that’s when assailants show up to get him.
Revenge? A desire for his silence? Terrier makes improbable escapes, implausible ones and preposterous ones as he ventures from London to Barcelona and Gibraltar is search of answers.
Winstone’s the old pal; Javier Bardem plays the old romantic rival who “got the girl.” Mark Rylance is a savvy old colleague, and a mysterious Idris Elba flicks away at a pricey cigarette lighter, not revealing his hand until the third act.
I like the hard-boiled dialogue, even the preachier stuff.
“Not all of us wanted to turn our sin into profit.”
“Do you keep a diary of all the horror we created?”
Bardem and Rylance stand out in the cast, with Elba and Winstone reduced to set-dressing roles. Penn does his best Liam Neeson in the lead, a hard “ex-special forces” type who wipes out whole teams of killers in assorted lovely Spanish settings. The violence is very bloody and personal, and Penn has never had trouble conveying violence.
But the only novelty here are those settings, as characters slip into stock types and the hard-boiled lines devolve into big speeches, delivered at gunpoint, by hero to villains, and vice versa.
Penn doesn’t work much, and this idea of combining his two careers — as actor, producer and writer, and as humanitarian — might have its heart in the right place. But take away the preaching, and this is just Penn’s version of a late-career Mel Gibson movie. He should be better than this.