Maybe the blazingly talented Sean Penn has given a worse performance at some point in his film career, whether it was in “Shanghai Surprise” or even in “I Am Sam,” Oscar nomination for the latter notwithstanding.
Maybe the remarkable Javier Bardem has delivered even hammier work at some point in HIS career, e.g., “The Counselor.”
Rarely, though, have two Academy Award-winning actors been so stunningly off the mark in the same movie.
“The Gunman” is that movie.
Given the “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” nature of the plot involving an international operative who tries to retire but finds himself engaging in endless shootouts and hand-to-hand combat with mercenaries half his age, and the fact “The Gunman” is directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”), one can reasonably surmise the 54-year-old Penn viewed this as his Liam Neeson moment.
It’s more like bad Sly Stallone.
In fact, the ripped and deeply bronzed Penn looks like he did a stint at the Stallone School of Insanely Rippled and Veiny Muscles. He spends about half the movie shirtless in his role of Jim Terrier (what a name), who in 2006 is a military contractor firm tasked with clearing an airport runway in strife-torn Congo.
Even though hundreds of thousands of suffering refugees are holed up in camps, and rebel and government forces are pillaging the land for diamonds and other treasures while the people die in the streets, Jim and his boys seem to be having a hell of a good time in the Congo. At night they repair to a ramshackle bar where the drinks flow, and Jim makes out with his beautiful saint of a girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor who works in a local clinic.
Bardem’s Felix, who works for the firm that has hired Jim and his mates, is obsessed with Annie. We know that because we get about a half-dozen shots of Felix looking longingly at Annie and staring daggers at Jim at that good-time bar.
When Felix arranges for Jim to be the triggerman in the assassination of the country’s minister of mining, he knows it will mean Jim will have to flee the country, never to see Annie again. Bahahahahah! Oh that Felix.
Cut to 2014, where Jim is trying to make amends for past sins by working for a relief organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while (unbeknownst to Jim) Felix and Annie are married and living in Barcelona.
After three mercenaries try to assassinate Jim (guess how that turns out), Jim flees the continent again in order to figure out who wants him dead. His travels take him London and then to Spain, as he reunites with his old pals (including Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance), and it’s embarrassing how easy it is to figure out who’s really on Jim’s side and who is setting him up. Forget about foreshadowing. This movie has five-shadowing.
With the obligatory international thriller techno-score humming in the background and some admittedly gorgeous international scenery as a backdrop, “The Gunman” follows a predictable pattern: cheesy, semi-tense dialogue when characters confront each other, followed by either a shootout or a “Bourne” type fight scene, in which our man Jimmy is of course by far the best shot and the best bone-cracker, much to the surprise of the cocky, interchangeable henchmen who come at him one at a time.
Bardem’s Felix is such a missed opportunity. When Jim surprises him in Barcelona, we learn Felix has become an immensely wealthy and powerful businessman now involved in some sort of organization that ostensibly raises money for developing countries. It seems Jim is hopelessly outmatched and outclassed if he expects to win back Annie and find out who’s trying to kill him.
But within hours, Felix is revealed as a theatrically drunken, insecure fool — and it doesn’t help that Bardem plays him as A THEATRICALLY DRUNKEN, INSECURE FOOL!!!
Meanwhile, Jim keeps finding excuses to take off his shirt and casually flex his pecs. He’s also suffering from post-concussion syndrome, which Penn portrays by grabbing his head in agony and screaming, as his vision goes blurry and his ears ring while he has horrible flashbacks. It’s a cheap and obvious way to portray a very real and very serious condition.
Nobody gets out of this film unscathed. Jasmine Trinca’s Annie is one of the least believable doctors in recent film history. And when Jim asks her why she married the obviously weak and corrupt and creepy Felix, she says it’s like when you’re in a fire and you’re rescued by a firefighter. You owe him a debt, and she’s repaying the debt with marriage.
Really? That’s how it works?
Even more ridiculous is the exchange between Idris Elba as the obligatory Interpol chief who meets with Jim on a bench in a public square and delivers a lengthy and tortured metaphor about building a tree house, and how sometimes you need help building the right tree house.
Filled with gruesome violence in which the camera lingers on victims after they’ve been stabbed in the throat or gored by a bull (I’m not kidding) or shot in the heart, “The Gunman” veers dangerously close to camp in the final scenes.
If you make it that far without walking out.