With The Gunman (2015), Sean Penn becomes the latest inductee into that club slowly being filled by older gentlemen with a particular set of skills. Pierre Morel was a key figure in the meteoric rise of the 'geriaction' genre with his explosive Taken (2008), not only launching Liam Neeson's own brand of ass-kicking but transforming the sub-genre from camp silliness to exploitation gold. It's now seven years later and a raft of imitators have tried their hands with varying success, while the Taken series has itself suffered from diminishing returns. If this latest staid entry into the canon is anything to go by, few lessons have been learned in recent times.
Penn gets to show off his ripped physique as mercenary Jim Terrier (pictured right) who - in a protracted and largely uninteresting set-up sequence - has to flea the Democratic Republic of Congo after assassinating a government official. Years later, he is back in the country making amends through humanitarian work when hired guns arrive to off him. For some unknown reason his past indiscretions are coming back to bite him, so Terrier has to go on the offensive to find out who wants him dead and why. While writer Jean-Patrick Manchette's source novel The Prone Gunman may not be an all-time classic, the conflation of this with Penn's humanitarian angle has the potential to make for an interesting thriller amongst callous corporations and the amorality of the men who kill for them for the highest price. Alas, the setting is just a backdrop for the most generic of shoot-'em-ups that not only fails to make the most of a potentially intriguing landscape, but also wastes the talents of a fantastic cast.
The usually dependable Penn lacks any of the charisma that is needed to bear the burden of an endeavour such as this, though he's helped little by portraying a characterless soldier for whom a penchant for surfing, a deteriorating condition nor a long-lost love add any real spark. Worse still, is the array of supporting players who have more than enough ability to add some potential spice around the edges of the flavourless protagonist. Instead, Jasmine Trinca, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba, Javier Bardem and, most criminally, Mark Rylance, must wade through insipid dialogue and can only muster the smallest of curiosity with characters that lack any appreciable depth. Morel may manage to bring the familiar crunching of bones to action sequences that otherwise lack verve, but they suffer all the more for the banality of the plot that conjoins them. With no fun to be had, The Gunman also lacks essential thrills. If Sean Penn is winging for an action-hero renaissance like Neeson's, he'll be in need of material a lot more compelling than this.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson