The Gunman is one of those films that tells you everything in the first five minutes. Apart from the predictable genre—action thriller a la Taken (even directed by Pierre Morel)—there is a pleasantly surprising level of new perspective in this movie. From the jump, you know what to expect: fistfights, black ops maneuvers, an honorable anti-hero, and flashbacks from his dark past. But the setting and elements of political conflict and butterfly effects add a level of sophistication that was completely unexpected.
The basics are the same as many other action-thrillers. Retired badass Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is roped back into his shady past, forced to face demons he ran away from and save the woman he loves. 8 years ago, after assassinating the Congolese Minister of Mining and triggering an era of chaos, Jim went into hiding. He left behind his girlfriend, NGO (non-governmental organization) doctor Annie, who of course is given no meaningful role in the entire 2 hours of film, despite being a seasoned medical professional and humanitarian.
In the present, Jim suffers from painful flashbacks and dizzy spells that nearly incapacitate him, allegedly a remnant of many head traumas he suffered as an operative. He now works as a humanitarian himself, building wells and pipelines to get fresh water into Congolese villages. On an average day, he is assaulted by a hit squad and discovers that there is a price on his head to do with his last mission—the assassination.
This sets him off on a whirlwind journey across 3 different countries to locate his old partners in crime and keep himself alive. In London, he and an old friend find out that his ex-boss has begun a private firm offering protection to government figures, and wants to eliminate everyone involved in the Congo assassination to keep his records clean. Now the firm’s hit team is chasing him around the clock, to Spain, where he reconnects with bitter colleague Felix and ex-girlfriend Annie.
This section of the movie is far too long. Annie is half-nude in every scene, and Jim spends at least half an hour pining over her and convincing her to cheat on Felix with him. This could be excusable, but Jim and Annie have no chemistry whatsoever, which makes watching it all incredibly painful. Javier Bardem does an excellent job playing the alcoholic and unhinged Felix, jealous and stuck in the past, but it all amounts to nothing as the hit squad kills him, leaving Jim and Annie free to carry out their old romance with no consequences.
Mark Rylance, however, who played Jim’s ex-boss Terrance Cox, made an incredibly unconvincing villain. He reminded me of a clown at Halloween—not scary, but deeply unsettling. The obviousness that he is the villain is clear from his very first scene, making the rest of the movie more of a how-dunnit than a whodunnit, and not a very interesting one at that.
Overall, The Gunman was very predictable, only vaguely interesting, and rather unsatisfying. I considered turning it off multiple times, but Javier Bardem kept stealing the scene. He was absolutely the hidden gem here, and part of the reason I’ve chosen two stars, not just one.