“The Gunman” Review: It Aims Low and Still Misses
Because it is about a sharp-shooter struggling with a combat-related brain injury, one might expect The Gunman to be a retread of last year’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper. Any resemblance is superficial; The Gunman is not part of the long, grand tradition of Home Front movies to which American Sniper belongs. It is something more commonplace: an international thriller that remains well within the narrowest parameters of the kiss-kiss-bang-bang formula.
The movie opens with poverty porn, a newscast-style summary of everything bad about the Democratic Republic of the Congo: corruption, disease, extraction of resources by Western conglomerates, rebel violence. The litany isn’t needed, because all of this is shown, rather than told, in the scenes that follow. Sean Penn plays James Terrier, a hired gun along with several others who provide security for construction sites in the war-torn African nation. That’s their cover, at least; their real job is to take out a member of the Congolese government unfriendly to European mining interests. Team leader Cox (Mark Rylance) sets up the hit, liaison man Felix (Javier Bardem) assigns the team to carry it out, and Terrier pulls the trigger.
Terrier leaves Africa to go into hiding, and eight years go by. His girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), an NGO aid worker who was in the Congo to save lives even as Terrier took them away, thinks he has abandoned her. She marries Felix, who turns out to be quite a scumbag, and moves with him to Barcelona to start a family. Later in the film, the explanation she gives for this decision is unconvincing, but not as unconvincing as the explanation Terrier gives her for why he never got in touch.
Before this half-cooked human drama gets going, though, the gunplay kicks into gear. After eight years, Terrier has sneaked back into Africa to atone for his sins by digging wells when he is attacked by rifle- and machete-wielding assailants. Though unarmed, he dispatches them with a cool competence beyond that which might be expected of a low-level rent-an-assassin. His ability to detect every trap and escape from each impossible situation is taken for granted, because the movie prefers to take the path of least resistance through the espionage thriller playbook rather than providing him with a character or a backstory. From this first attack on, Terrier’s conversations are limited to “Who’s trying to kill me?” and “I have to find out who’s trying to kill me,” and “Are you going to help me find out who’s trying to kill me?”
A gunman he may be, but a world-class spy he’s not, because the answer to his query is obvious. The Gunman’s small cast includes only a couple of likely suspects, and one of them dies halfway through, so it’s no surprise to the audience when the other is finally ID’d as the chief antagonist. There are several missed opportunities to flesh out the cast. Idris Elba has received prominent billing in the advertising for the movie, but it is a lure: his fleeting appearances last as long as it probably took to shoot them. Terrier also makes a young friend in the Congo, a local teenager whom the movie takes pains to introduce only to leave behind. Bardem and Rylance are two fine character actors with too little asked of them.
The screenplay’s offhanded approach to characters extends also to the movie’s only real twist, the traumatic brain injury diagnosis that Terrier receives on a trip to London. He explains to the doctor that he received a concussive blast from an IED prior to the events of the movie. It is a throwaway reveal and an inconsequential development. His nausea and dizzy spells appear only when it is convenient for the plot, to give the illusion that he might miss his next shot, and never during the quieter moments of expository dialogue or lovemaking. Real brain injuries, of course, are with their victims all the time, and for the movie to introduce this important issue but do almost nothing with it feels cheap and patronizing.
Patronizing, too, is the film’s attitude toward women. Annie’s two modes are shrieking and catatonic, and her arc takes her from passionate human rights advocate to submissive, unhappy wife. Two other women with minor speaking roles come to bloody ends. Terrier puts a Congolese boy in charge of an operation, telling him “only you can do it,” while one of his adult, female colleagues looks on in the background, apparently capable but not considered competent. Clearly, characters named James and Felix aren’t the only things this film has in common with the average Bond movie.
The action scenes that might have made up for a weak plot and hollow characters are uninspired. They are far between, with too much casual, humorless banter between them. Director Pierre Morel (Taken) opts for the usual frantic, handheld look for the fights, but they manage to seem lazy. Only a showdown in a bullfight arena prompts some creative visuals and novel modes of death.
But it’s too little, too late—just an occasion to observe that The Gunman has about as much humanity, and less entertainment value, than a bullfight.
Let’s see some similar movies The Gunman is worse than.
The Gunman vs. The Constant Gardener
The Constant Gardener could almost be The Gunman’s long-lost twin. It’s shockingly similar, from the impoverished African setting to the condemnation of multinational corporations to the anxieties over romantic fidelity. The Constant Gardener, though, commits more fully to these ideas, whereas in The Gunman they provoke crocodile tears then are put aside in favor of old-hat heroics. Still, if The Gunman’s action were any good, it might beat The Constant Gardener, which lacks energy and is a little hard to follow. As it happens, Gunman’s action isn’t good, so it’s Gardener over Gunman.
The Gunman vs. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Where John le Carré has focused on the upper echelons of British intelligence, his French counterpart Jean-Patrick Manchette, who wrote the book on which The Gunman is based, followed the lives of blue-collar, punch-clock agents. Had The Gunman emphasized that aspect of Penn’s character, it might have been better. As it is, 2011’s remade tale of le Carré’s honorable spymaster George Smiley is significantly better. Its plot is a trifle, nothing more than standard espionage fare, but the acting is superb and the retro look of the film is well-chosen.
The Gunman vs. The Day of the Jackal
The Gunman’s source material is French, and The Day of the Jackal takes place in France. It tells of a scheme to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. It’s a classic, a stately and restrained crime drama with all participants, cops and criminals and victims and politicians, observed from a dispassionate distance. Its slow pace and chilly tone are not to everyone’s taste, but it destroys The Gunman for pure artistry.
The Gunman is destined for the bargain bin or the lower price range of Amazon Instant Video, which co-produced it. Right now I can’t think of a movie in its genre that’s clearly inferior. If you’ve got a candidate, do tell.