Those hoping for the next Taken will be disappointed by the slow-burn character piece that is The Gunman.
The Gunman follows special operative Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a hardened warrior who nonetheless finds a soft spot for humanitarian doctor Annie (Jasmine Trinca) while on assignment in the Congo. The romance is short-lived, however, as Jim is ordered to assassinate a prominent member of the Congo government. After carrying out the hit, Jim flees the country, turning his back on Annie.
Eight year later, while back in the Congo trying to atone for his sins, Jim is targeted for assassination himself. On the lamb and with few friends, he heads to Europe to track down his former partners - instead finding old war dogs like Cox (Mark Rylance) and Felix (Javier Bardem) now wearing suits and fighting on much different battlefields. Jim soon realizes that returning to the way of the gun is not a simple thing - nor is reclaiming the life and love with Annie that he left behind.
The new film in the "Geriaction" sub-genre, made by the same man who arguably started the trend (Taken director Pierre Morel) - it is in fact inaccurate to call The Gunman an action movie, at all. What we get instead is more of a brooding character drama with action segments, and the end result is a somewhat lackluster cinematic experience. In short: Those hoping for the next Taken will be disappointed by the slow-burn character piece that is The Gunman.
From a directorial standpoint, Morel shows off some clear cinematic vision that turns an action film into something that is (visually speaking) more artistic and nuanced than your average film in the genre. Besides visual metaphor and iconography, the few action scenes in the film do manage to recapture the visceral kinetic thrills of the original Taken - this time in full Rated-R brutality. The cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano (Unknown, Non-Stop) is vibrant and crisp, and is generally filled with colors and imagery that will be captivating to the eye.
Unfortunately, a lot of the positive momentum on the directorial front is lost by Don MacPherson (The Avengers - 1998 version) and Pete Travis' (director of Dredd) script adaptation of the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Simply put, the relatively inexperienced pair of screenwriters don't do enough work distilling the novel into an easily palpable and streamlined film. The Gunman's storyline (and subsequently the film itself) is smothered by an overabundance of plot threads that make it hard to readily digest - or even fully understand - the larger relevance and resonance of events taking place onscreen. The worlds of geo-politics, espionage, and humanitarian aid are all mixed together - each with esoteric lingos and politics - making it that much harder for the viewer to sift through events and developments for meaning and understanding. Bottom line: there's too much fat of the novel crammed into the slimmer fit of a screenplay.
The biggest misstep, however, is the surprising lack of action and pacing in the film. While many will come expecting the next Taken, The Gunman is instead methodically slow in its buildup to and doling out of action. While Morel does pull off some thrilling sequences, these sequences can be counted on one hand (only three big ones, really), and are delivered only after long stretches of much slower plot and character development. Odder yet: when the action does happen, it tends to be jarringly brutal in a way that seems at odds with the more artistic sensibilities the film exhibits. Even when viscerally satisfying, there's nothing all that innovative in terms of sequencing, but Penn and Co. do commit to making the fight scenes and shootouts play well.
While The Gunman has an unmistakable lineup of talent in its cast, those cast members are also put to somewhat odd use. Penn seems to be in three different films (action/thriller, love story, medical drama), making it hard to form a coherent and engaging performance. The film seems to be at arm's length from Jim Terrier, or perhaps just from Penn, who - even when his intention is clear - seems emotionally distant from the viewer.
Javier Bardem seems to be pulling the same kind of character he played in The Counselor, and his performance is just as over-the-top. The film doesn't seem to know what to make of Felix, so there are low returns on the investment of screen time Bardem gets. Lost in that vague middle with him is Jasmine Trinca's Annie - a brushstroke creation that's supposedly important, but functions more as a plot device, piled in with the larger espionage/mystery plotline. Nonetheless, Trinca carries what is given, and even achieves a suitable spark with Penn.
A strong lineup of character actors fill out the supporting roles, even if the roles themselves are thin. Idris Elba's Interpol agent character barely factors in at all, while Ray Winstone (Noah) and Mark Rylance (Bing) properly anchor some of the stereotypical action/mystery movie character archetypes. Other faces - like Finnish superstar Peter Franzén - come and go in bit part appearances, but still bring gravitas to the movie where they can.
In the end, The Gunman is much more of a character drama than a spiritual successor to Taken. While the filmmaking is solid, the storytelling is overly convoluted and not at all engaging. For most people coming to the theater hoping for the sort of star-power action piece the trailers promised, this will be a gun fight that only ends one way: in disappointment.
The Gunman is now in theaters. It is 115 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality.