Dear Male 18-35,
My reaction at the end of The Gunman was pretty simple… WTF did I just watch? Try to imagine a flaccid remake of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin— but without the car chases. Then also imagine the occasional incoherent stab at exposing corporate malfeasance and geopolitical manipulation. If you can imagine all of that then you are about halfway to recreating the experience of watching The Gunman.
There is a sliding scale of expectation when it comes to evaluating a film like this. Going into Taken3 a while back, I made sure I had some help to make it through the screening—mostly because I was pretty sure it was going to be awful. On the other hand, the run up to The Gunman had completely seduced me by massaging my action movie sweet spots. The trailers were marvels of efficient editing. It is also a great cast: Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Sean Penn moving through beautiful locales like Barcelona, London, and the Ivory Coast. Finally, I had heard Sean Penn doing some interviews and he actually sounded mildly enthused about the project
So how could it go wrong?
Where to start? The direction is incredibly ham-fisted, once it steps outside of the mayhem. And even then, when an awkward metaphor involving bull fighting and the potential demise of Penn’s ‘gunman’ character is introduced, the purity of an otherwise perfectly competent sequence is ruined. There is also—I kid you not—a sequence where the male and female leads rush towards one another and embrace after a perilous separation.
That really happened. It wasn’t played for laughs. Or even a snicker. Although it sure received one in the theatre where I was sitting.
The biggest problem of all was Sean Penn. I had once believed there was something authentic about his performances but I’m beginning to see how it was mostly an extension of his Hemingway-esque posturing in the real world. There really isn’t much there, even in the quiet, perfectly lit moments of broody angst. It just doesn’t scan. And dude, you are in great shape for a man your age but keep your fucking shirt on.
Penn’s character is ostensibly the moral center of the film, but The Gunman wants it both ways; he is alternately a brutally efficient killing machine and a remorseful NGO aid worker—without any of the psychological complexity necessary to square that particular circle. He comes off as a reluctant psycho-killer whose Doctor Without Borders lover cannot resist, despite her full knowledge of his various war crimes. The whole relationship seems as contrived and ad hoc as the rest of the film.
So, my fellow movie traveler, don’t make the same sacrifice of time—and neurons—that I did. Stay home and watch Robert De Niro and Sean Bean drive really fast cars through the French countryside. And know I have suffered for you.
Make it mean something, Private Ryan.