‘The Gunman’: Sean Penn’s Congo Temp Gig

March 23, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

Seriously, why bother assassinating a government official of a failed state? A small team of  mercenary soldiers will do so anyway in the Congo, because a job is a job.

Unfortunately, the shadowy outfit managing the contract has started tying up loose ends. Those would be Jim Terrier and his former comrades-in-arms. He just might be the only left who isn’t part of the conspiracy, but he should be enough to bring them all down in Pierre Morel’s “The Gunman.” 

For a while, Terrier was really enjoying the Congo assignment. While secretly working for Lawrence Cox’s death squad, he volunteered as a relief coordinator by day to maintain his cover. That is how he met and fell hard for Annie, the professional do-gooder.

Unfortunately, just when both their romance and the country’s civil war are heating up, Terrier is assigned to the team taking out an uncooperative natural resources minister looking to renegotiate terms. (In real life, the mining companies would just say “Fine, call us when you have a working legal system.”) Since he will be the trigger man, Terrier will have to vanish afterward, leaving Annie to the creepy advances of Felix, his smarmy corporate contact.

Haunted by his collective guilt, Terrier returns to Congo, hoping to do penance, like Jack Bauer in the two-hour special “24: Redemption.” However, when an unusually well-equipped hit squad shows up gunning for Terrier, he realizes someone is out to get the old gang, but they all seem to be dead, except for him and the suspiciously chipper Cox.

Felix also seems to be acting excessively obnoxious, but that is just sort of how he is. For understandable reasons, his now-wife Annie has mixed emotions seeing Terrier again, but the sparks are still there. She tries to guilt trip him, pointedly asking, “What did you expect showing up after all this time,” but since they just slept together, things are probably exceeding his expectations (but not necessarily ours).

Frankly, the early scenes of the hard-bitten assassins doubling as relief logistical specialists are rather intriguing and hint at dramatic possibilities the film opts not to take. Of course, we have to deal with the film as it is and not what it might have been.

Granted, the narrative drive and internal logic start to sag in the second act, with the former rebounding and the latter utterly imploding down the stretch, but nobody can blame Sean Penn. “Gunman” is really his coming-out party as a middle-aged action figure, where he indeed shows he has the chops and the presence. He also clearly put in the time at the gym.

However, Idris Elba is even more impressive, getting second billing over Javier Bardem for maybe two days of work, tops. Appearing as DuPont, the Interpol agent, he just drops in, makes an extended treehouse analogy, and then disappears until it’s time for the mopping up.

Yet, he is still totally intimidating. Ray Winstone does his old hard-nosed thing as Terrier’s trustworthy associate Stanley, and Mark Rylance’s Cox chews on a fair amount of scenery. Frankly, it is hard to know what to make of former “Bond” villain Bardem, but at least he isn’t playing it safe as the whiny, petulant Felix. On the other hand, it is safe to say Jasmine Trinca (so subtle and earthy in Valeria Golino’s “Honey”) is woefully wasted as the problematically passive Annie.

There are some nicely executed old-school actions scenes in “Gunman,” but some sequences are undermined by questionable editing. On several occasions, it looks like Terrier is in the immediate path of assorted perils, only to find him safely outside the line of fire an abrupt cut or two later.

“Taken” helmer Morel gets the attitude right, but he largely keeps the film on a medium tempo rather than a breakneck speed. You just leave the theater suspecting in most alternate universes that this movie is totally awesome, but the one we get is just okay. It will satisfy hardcore Penn fans, but the rest of us should feel no urgent need to rush out to see it. In New York, it is currently showing at the AMC Empire.

‘The Gunman’
Director: Pierre Morel
Starring:  Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Jasmine Trinca, Mark Rylance 
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Release date: March 20
Rated R
2.5 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com