Despite the fact that The Gunman is set amid the tragic turmoil of the war in the Congo and the fact that it stars and was co-written by noted Hollywood activist Sean Penn, this film is not an exceptionally political film. What appears in the first few minutes to be a Syriana-style exploration of third world political corruption and the terrible fall-out for the Congolese people turns into a stock-standard if bloody shoot ‘em up action film.
In a convoluted and occasionally dull storyline, Penn plays security contractor and former Special Forces soldier Jim Terrier who, in 2006, is in the Congo ostensibly to protect aid workers. The company for which he works has somewhat less noble motives for their involvement in the country and has Jim and his colleagues – who include the shifty-looking Felix (Javier Bardem) – performing political assassinations. Following one high-level killing, Jim is forced to flee Africa leaving behind his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Years later Jim, now an aid worker, finds himself the target of a plot to clean up any loose ends from that assassination. In classic movie villain tradition, however, the bad guys underestimate the superhuman killing abilities of their prey.
It’s unusual to see the outspoken Penn in such a meat ‘n’ taters action role and while the film touches on the political and economic mechanisms that line western pockets and foment third world conflict, these issues merely provide a backdrop for the action. The film provides fewer insights into the basis of African conflict than the similar but superior Leo Dicaprio film Blood Diamond.
That The Gunman capitulates into a series of action scenes is of little surprise given that it was directed by Taken’s Pierre Morel. As with Taken, the action sequences in The Gunman swing from confrontingly visceral to laughably improbable. There’s some wince-inducing bashings, shootings and impalings but also comical scenes of a virtually indestructible Terrier vanquishing armies of foes despite serious wounds and what is supposed to be a debilitating neurological illness.
While occasionally exciting and tense the film’s credibility isn’t helped by cornball dialogue and thuddingly obvious symbolism such as Jim’s neurological condition acting as a metaphor for his toxic memories and at one point a cornered Jim juxtaposed with a bull being menaced by a Toreador.
Penn, despite grimacing and grumbling through much of the film brings some gravitas to the role of Jim. He also handles the action scenes well and is remarkably toned and sinewy for a 54-year-old. Comically, though, he is given a few too many opportunities to lose his shirt including a gratuitous surfing sequence. As the sneaky, embittered Felix, Javier Bardem delivers an oddly loopy performance that recalls his strange turn in the Ridley Scott disaster The Counsellor. Jasmine Trinca isn’t given a lot to do except play a clichéd damsel in distress. Ray Winstone, in a role that almost looks like self-parody, appears as Jim’s beery, slobbish but loyal friend Stanley.
Sadly what could have been a thoughtful examination of a tragic situation affecting millions of innocent people is, in this film, turned into another paternalistic, gun loving white man on the rampage saga.
Nick’s rating: **1/2.
Genre: Action/ drama.
Director(s): Pierre Morel.
Release date: 16th April 2015.
Running time: 115 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
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