Pierre Morel doubles down on the great-white-ass-kicking-savior scenario that spawned what’s now the Taken trilogy with The Gunman, a blandly straightforward globetrotting actioner. In a similar role as Liam Neeson’s one-man army, Sean Penn is Jim Terrier, a military contractor working construction security in the Congo alongside partners Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance). When he’s drafted to assassinate a controversial politician, the bloodshed destabilizes the region and Jim must go into hiding, abandoning his girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Morel predictably directs the ensuing corporate intrigue and series of life-or-death scenarios with a terse muscularity, but the lack of any visual ingenuity, reflexivity, or awareness of genre tropes diminishes the intermittent pleasures of the slightly involving kineticism.
Years after going underground, Jim finds himself once again hunted by a mysterious outfit of mercenaries, one that inevitably traces back to his wet work in the Congo. The vague fascination with humanitarian efforts in the country certainly matches Penn’s cultivated self-image as an itinerant philanthropist. What makes less sense is why the actor or the filmmakers feel the need to brazenly show off his admittedly sculpted body as if he were in direct competition with Alexander Skarsgård or Dan Stevens for action-movie pinup of the year. In fact, the entire film feels like Penn’s response to The Expendables franchise—a flimsy, explosion-laden testament to an aging actor’s virility and vitality that, tellingly, comes off as devoid of personal stakes and anything resembling good sense.
Morel offers a handful of solid action sequences, but none of them quite legitimize all the obvious bullshitting that’s sandwiched between them. The director employs an unoriginal love-triangle scenario that sets Felix and Jim against one another, and, of course, equates any accumulation of wealth as a sure sign of uncomplicated corruption. On top of this, the script gives Penn’s character an imminent concussion-based disease, which could, at any moment, rob him of his memory, but this condition is utilized solely to build up tension in the final act, set around a bullfight in Barcelona. And whereas Taken was paced with thrilling, frantic urgency, The Gunman takes its time to reiterate plot points, expositional information, and foreshadowing that were hard to miss in the first place. While feigning to address global themes with only a passing fascination, Morel has created a plot so obvious and predictable that, in comparison, his hugely successful earlier collaboration with Neeson feels like the work of a dedicated craftsman.