The Gunman is a perfect example of how too many cooks can spoil a broth. Or rather, how too many authors can ruin a film. The Gunman has three screenwriters, one of whom is also the star of the film, Sean Penn. And I’m sorry to say it, Mr. Penn, but you’re the primary reason why this film doesn’t work.
The film’s plot is a tricky one to describe for this very reason, as it is nearly incomprehensible for the film’s first hour. Penn plays a former hitman named Terrier who, in his glory days, assassinated the Minister of Mining of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While atoning for his sins in a self-imposed solitude digging wells in Africa, an attempt is made on Terrier’s life, forcing him to head to Europe to investigate why and how it connects to his violent past.
Don’t expect to gather most of that from the film’s establishing scenes, though. Most of it is explained in exposition later, and even then, not very well. In the meantime, the film spends its first hour lingering on Terrier’s slow investigation in a painful attempt to weave an unnecessary and incomprehensible subplot about humanitarianism and African exploitation into what has been billed as an action flick. The action does eventually pick up, but by the time it did I was so bored that I didn’t care about Terrier, the political backdrop of the story, or the token supporting cast that he inevitably has to save.
This is a real shame, too, as the action scenes are adequate, particularly those in a climactic scene in a bullfighting arena. Directed by Pierre Morel, who is best known for directing the Taken franchise, the action is at its best when it is focused on cramped environments, and walls and doors only function as impediments to the hero’s and villains’ close action combat. But when the film momentarily gets good, it only showcases how uncomfortable Morel is with anything other than violence, as the context for the fighting is so confusingly plotted so as to be instantly forgettable. I still don’t completely understand who every character was or what the stakes were, and I don’t really care to.
If one is to assign blame, I think the most obvious culprit is Sean Penn. Knowing Penn’s proclivity for African humanitarian activism, it isn’t hard to deduce that the political elements are largely his contribution, and though he is a decent actor, he is not a decent screenwriter. Not only are his politics completely lacking in intrigue, but they feel shoehorned into someone else’s film, almost as if a condition of his involvement was to attempt to educate the audience about his pet issue. And while I think humanitarianism is a worthwhile cause, selling it in an action movie where the protagonist is an assassin is not only misguided in its conception, but was horribly bungled in its execution.
Sean Penn’s pretentions are well known in Hollywood, and while the man has his heart in the right place, he should leave his politics separate from his acting career, at least to the extent that his choice of projects don’t already revolve around his pet issues. By writing in such a poorly realized political angle to what could have been an otherwise passable action film, the whole project was sunk through a combination of being unintelligible and just being downright boring. If you want a Grandpa-with-a-Gun flick, watch the recent Run All Night. My memories of that are much fonder after seeing this garbage.
Do actors’ personal politics have a place in the creative process? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.