Picking up from the theme of last week’s review for the Danish Western The Salvation, French director Pierre Morel’s new film The Gunman follows a theme seen in many classic Westerns. Dozens of Westerns used theme of the reformed gunslinger: a former killer who turns his efforts toward helping his community, only to be drawn back into his old life.
In The Gunman, Morel and screenwriter Pete Travis bring that theme into the 21st Century by swapping out private military contractors for gunslingers and the chaos of central Africa for the anarchy of the American West.
Sean Penn plays Jim Terrier, a private security consultant in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2006, when the country’s Minister of Mining canceled all private mining contracts, Jim’s mining-company clients ordered him and his team to assassinate the minister. Jim pulled the trigger and left behind his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a young doctor involved in the international humanitarian efforts in Congo. Jim left Annie in the care of Felix (Javier Bardem), the liaison between the client and Jim’s team.
Eight years later, Jim returns to the Congo. He has given up his life as a paid killer to take a job as a well-digger for another humanitarian aid group. He also suffers from headaches, blurred vision and memory loss, so he keeps extensive diaries about his previous life.
When a band of thugs comes to his job site to kill him, Jim must find out who hired them and why they want him dead.
Jim looks up his old connections, starting in London with his team leader Cox (Mark Rylance). Cox now acts as an executive with the private security firm that oversaw their operations in DRC. Cox lets Jim know that U.S. and European authorities are pursuing Cox’s company for its involvement in the Congo operations. Cox encourages Jim to visit Felix in Barcelona, where he discovers that Felix and Annie are now married.
Jim picks up some help along the way from Stanley (Ray Winstone), a former mercenary, and Barnes (Idris Elba), an Interpol agent looking to take down Cox’s company. The action picks up in the final act, including a daring escape from Felix’s country estate, a close-quarters gunfight at an aquarium, and a climactic battle in a bullfighting arena.
The Gunman reflects the sparse, bare-bones style of the political thrillers of the 1970s.
Based on the 1981 novel The Prone Gunman by French author Jean-Patrick Manchette, Travis’ screenplay keeps the action moving, the dialogue tight, and the characterization at a minimum. Morel continues his knack of creating action stars out of actors over 50 he started with Liam Neeson in the first Taken film.
While the script lacks much in the way of subtle character moments, each actor puts out strong efforts in their respective parts. Penn plays the assassin-turned-well digger with enough vulnerability for audiences to relate to him, but not so much that it weakens the character. Bardem and Rylance are effective villains, but Italian actress Trinca gets little more to do than play “damsel in distress”.
Overall, The Gunman is a tight, well-executed thriller that delivers on its promises.
Action fans will enjoy seeing the buffed-up Penn take on a wide array of bad guys. Political junkies will also enjoy the film’s statements about how private military contractors and their clients can disrupt an entire region with just one bullet.
If you’re feeling a bit “Insurgent” at the thought of seeing another teenage-girl-vs.-the-cruel-adult-world blockbuster this weekend, then you should give The Gunman a shot.