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Movie Review

‘The Gunman’ misses the mark

Sean Penn (with Javier Bardem and Jasmine Trinca) plays a killer with a conscience in “The Gunman.”
Sean Penn (with Javier Bardem and Jasmine Trinca) plays a killer with a conscience in “The Gunman.”(Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films)

Among the “particular set of skills” referred to by Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA vigilante hero Bryan Mills in “Taken” (2008), ruthlessness, righteousness, and sangfroid would probably rank among the most potent. At least as far as an audience is concerned.

Sean Penn’s character Jim Terrier (no relation to Jack Russell Terrier) in “The Gunman” shares many of Mills’s skills, but shies from the most crucial. He gets squeamish. He has scruples. Simply put, he isn’t into his job. He has a conscience and self-doubt, and that just ruins the whole point of the genre.

This is especially true for “Gunman” director Pierre Morel, who also directed “Taken” and now finds himself having to completely redo that film’s template in this adaptation of a 1981 Jean-Patrick Manchette novel that is at least as ruthless as “Taken” and more nihilistic. And so Morel, too, isn’t into his job.

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Though the body count mounts, and action scenes that invariably end in a death or maiming become more inventive (one set during a bull fight has potential, but then gets all symbolic), Penn’s character just gets more miserable. You don’t have to enjoy it, you can almost hear Morel thinking. Just don’t spoil it for everyone else.

Judging from his background, it would seem that Terrier had at least an inclination as well as a knack for lethal violence. Ex-special forces, he now works as a mercenary nominally employed to protect an NGO medical unit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, though, he and his crew, led by Felix, played by a Eurotrashy Javier Bardem, are working for a mining company involved in manipulating events in the volatile country to insure their own interests. The minister of mining is getting out of hand, so Jim, Felix, and company have to do some wet work. As a result, Jim must be whisked out of the country, which immediately collapses into bloody chaos.

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So much for historical and political context. As we know from Hollywood films about Third World turmoil, genocide and civil war always make a good backdrop for love stories, and in this case the loathsome Felix has the hots for Jim’s girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor, and so has arranged events to get Jim out of the picture.

But Jim is dismayed by his deed not just because he loses the woman he loves. You can tell he has a bad feeling about the assignment from the veins and wrinkles rippling his face as he pulls the trigger. It’s almost as impressive as the rippling six-pack he bares when surfing several years later back in the DRC. (An allusion to “Apocalypse Now”? I hope not.) In an attempt to redeem himself he now drills wells for impoverished villagers, but the past catches up to him in the form of hired killers. So now he must use his particular set of skills to find out who and why.

Most viewers at this point could tell him what he wants to know and save everyone a lot of trouble. Instead, the narrative chugs along, bogged down by Jim’s angst, to several climaxes, each one more predictable than the last. If the film’s intent is to condition the audience into a distaste for violence through boredom, it succeeds.

Give Penn and company credit for trying to make an action picture with a conscience. But is such a thing even possible? Clint Eastwood, for one, has achieved it. His Dirty Harry film “Sudden Impact” (1983) is one of the most exciting and subtle deconstructions of the vigilante genre ever made. Recent Oscar nominee “American Sniper” — misinterpretations by the left and right notwithstanding — captures both the thrill of killing bad guys and the profound moral and psychological toll it takes on its determinedly unreflective protagonist. And has there been a more tormented or intense study of the ambivalence of revenge than Penn’s performance in Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003)? Penn might not agree with Eastwood’s politics, but when it comes to probing a killer’s soul he couldn’t find a better model.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.