Thursday, March 19, 2015

“The Gunman” – Mess with the bull and you’ll get the horns (or Welcome to the gun show!).

If you’re wondering why this isn’t a review of the movie people will actually be watching this weekend – Insurgent – it’s because Insurgent wasn’t being screened by the agency that puts on the screenings I go to. For some reason, the agency stopped screening movies produced by Lionsgate a while back, so our choices this week were The Gunman and whatever I felt like watching at home. But, come on – are you telling me you’re not interested in Sean Penn’s first try as an action star at age 54? If your answer is no, just lie to me.

The easiest comparison to make here is that Sean Penn is trying to duplicate the late-life action success of someone like Liam Neeson. Many critics have already made this exact comparison because their memories are so short (or so bad) that they forgot that Liam Neeson didn’t experience his breakout with Taken. Sean Penn never played a Jedi or the villain in a Batman movie prior to The Gunman, but Neeson’s been in action movies his entire career, including playing the lead in Rob Roy in 1995. Neeson was already an action name well before Taken, whereas Penn made his name before The Gunman playing roles in dramatic Oscar-bait movies. My point is that Penn is starting from square one, and convincing us he’s more Jason Bourne than Harvey Milk is a much bigger task than Neeson convincing us he’s an ass-kicking father after playing an ass-kicking master villain.

(Note: many critics are also making the comparison because Pierre Morel directed Taken as well as The Gunman, as if Morel was responsible for Liam Neeson’s success. Morel has directed a grand total of four movies, including The Gunman, and The Gunman is the only one not written and produced by Luc Besson. Taken is the only one that wasn’t a flop, so our only conclusion here is that many critics are morons.)

Now here’s the fun part – Penn got a screenwriting credit for The Gunman (along with Don MacPherson and Pete Travis), so when I bash this movie for having clichéd, convoluted, and bad writing, Penn can’t hide behind the writers, because he is one. And by bad writing, I’m talking rejected-Die Hard 5-scripts bad. Just last week, in my review of Run All Night (speaking of Liam Neeson), I talked about action movie tropes, specifically the one where the villain expends all of his resources to eliminate a perceived threat that isn’t a threat until the villain tries to eliminate it. In other words, the villain would have gone on undisturbed had he just left things alone. If you didn’t quite follow my thoughts then, The Gunman provides a textbook case of this stupefying trope.

(SPOILERS are coming, but you’re going to watch Insurgent anyway, so what do you care?)

Penn plays Jim Terrier, an ex-special forces soldier, now working for mining companies and is providing protection for their operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The film begins with a montage of news reports regarding the exploitation of African countries for their minerals, so we think this movie might focus on that as the main premise, but that’s just a trick. The movie is really about how many times Penn gets to take his shirt off to show us how ripped he made his 54-year old body. It must work because he also has a girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), that his friend and associate, Felix (Javier Bardem), openly and obviously lusts after (including while they are sitting together at dinner). Jim either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care because Felix looks like a middle-aged tax accountant who is the reason why kids are starving in Africa.

Late one night, we find out that Jim is more than just a glorified security guard. Jim and three others have been tasked by Felix (and his corporate overlords) with assassinating the Congolese Minister of Mining because the Minister was going to cancel all mining contracts in the country. Stipulated in Jim and team’s contract is that whomever of them actually pulls the trigger must leave the country forever (they literally tell us about the contract and this clause later in the movie). We’re only ten minutes into this movie and the first giant “BWAAAAA?!” occurs. Can someone please explain to me why only the shooter has to leave the country? Or why he has to leave the country at all? And the answer can’t be ‘plot contrivance’ because I already know that. As a further contrivance, Felix is the one who gets to designate the shooter and when he chooses Jim, Jim says “I figured it would be me.” I thought this meant that Jim did know about Felix’s obsession with Annie, but then Jim adds “take care of Annie for me.” Wait, why can’t Annie go with Jim? Why can’t Jim tell Annie that he has to leave? Won’t Annie notice that Jim disappears immediately following the assassination of the minister? How did this movie get that stupid, that fast?

But, wait it gets worse. After the assassination, the movie cuts to eight years later and Jim is back working in the Congo. At this point, he’s retired from security/assassination and his helping Congolese villages drill wells, when three guys show up to kill him. This is the first chance we get to see Penn kick some ass and I have to say that it’s actually pretty good. If this movie has one positive note, it’s that Penn IS believable as the latest old-guy action star. Sadly, the plot intervenes and we are thrust back into stupidity.

After dispatching his would-be assassins, Jim flies to London to talk to his old team lead, Cox (Mark Rylance), to tell Cox about the attempt on Jim’s life and to ask for help on figuring out who put the hit out in the first place. He is worried that Cox and the other two teammates from eight years earlier are also in danger. Then, Jim tracks down Felix and we see that Annie and Felix are now married. Jim isn’t surprised by this and spends some time stalking Annie, then goes to talk to Felix. Felix accuses him of wanting to win Annie back and the second giant “BWAAAAA?!” occurs. It’s been eight years and Jim never went back for Annie, plus he asks Felix what he knows about the assassination attempt. Jim doesn’t even accuse Felix of orchestrating the original assassination to steal Annie, so why is Felix so concerned about it now? Oh, right – check out Jim’s gun show.

At this point, we’re meant to believe that Felix is the mastermind and he did it for the girl, but then why would he wait eight years to try to kill Jim? And, since we’re asking (and Felix isn’t the mastermind), why did the real mastermind wait eight years to kill the team? Nothing is ever said throughout the movie to explain why it suddenly became necessary to kill the men behind the Congolese minister’s assassination after so much time had passed. We do find out that Felix was helping the real villain, but Felix is also a loose end that needs to be tied up. So, by default (aka Felix’s brains escaping from his skull), Jim wins Annie back. The good news is that the half-assed love triangle is put to rest. The bad news is that this movie still had half of its two-hour running time remaining, leaving plenty of time for more action movie clichés. Sadly, none of them involves seeing Annie topless because Penn took up the entire allotment.

Because they didn’t want this movie to be exactly like an 80’s action flick, Penn and the writers added a little wrinkle to Jim’s character – post-concussion syndrome. There is an entire scene devoted to Jim getting a brain scan and the doctor explaining Jim’s condition to him while Jim’s friend Stanley (Ray Winstone) looks on in concern. Long story short, the condition causes memory loss, headaches, seizures, wobbly legs, vomiting blood, sex with French women, and villain monologues and will get worse if he experiences any more head trauma. No, I didn’t make up any of that and yes, “BWAAAAA?!” They might as well have shoved a stick of Kryptonite up Jim’s ass for all the subtlety of this plot contrivance.

The movie continues on its clichéd, predictable path with a climax that takes place in a bullfighting arena in Spain and lasts about four hours. Jim threatens the bad guy with the release of evidence tying said bad guy to the old assassination, so they agree to an exchange at the arena – Annie for the evidence. Obviously, the bad guy is going to welch on the deal and while the baddie’s henchmen are duking it out with Jim, Annie makes a run for it. This being a terrible script, Annie does not yell for help, no spectator even reacts to her or the bad guy chasing her (through the crowded seats no less), no cops or security are ever seen (even though Jim called in Interpol to help), and the bullfighting continues even though Annie and the villain JUMP INTO THE ARENA. We are so far beyond “BWAAAAA?!” that it’s just “bwaa…meh” by now.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back and ask yourself how a guy named Penn could write something so bad.

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