Sean Penn turns into a generic action hero in ‘The Gunman’

It’s hard to aim while you’re sliding across the floor.
Mike D'Angelo

Two and a half stars

The Gunman Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba. Directed by Pierre Morel. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Directed by Pierre Morel, who launched Liam Neeson’s second-wind career as an action hero a few years back, The Gunman attempts to do the same for an impressively beefed-up (and frequently shirtless, lest those muscles go unnoticed) Sean Penn. The two-time Oscar winner plays a former mercenary named Jim Terrier—he’s tenacious, don’t you know—who’s given up the life following a Congo-set prologue in which an assassination job goes horribly wrong. Years later, Terrier is back in Africa, trying to make amends by doing missionary work, but somebody evidently doesn’t want to let bygones be bygones. An attempt on his life forces him to proceed on a globe-trotting tour of his checkered past, as he contacts various former associates in the hope of finding out who wants him dead.

If Penn seems like the last actor in the world who’d feel at ease as a pistol-packing badass, well, that’s the main problem with The Gunman, which also suffers from an unimaginative script and Morel’s strictly workmanlike direction. Scowling his way through the movie, Penn’s Terrier is neither fun nor intimidating, merely peeved; he seems especially dull once The Wire’s Idris Elba shows up late in the going to demonstrate what steely charisma looks like when the actor doesn’t feel guilty for embodying it. The cast is great all around, actually—Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance also play notable supporting roles—but nobody’s given anything memorable to say or do. The film is as utterly generic as its title.

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