*½/**** Image A Sound A
starring Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem
screenplay by Don McPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn, based on the novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette
directed by Pierre Morel
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by Bill Chambers Sean Penn seems like the last guy who would walk into his agent's office and say, "Give me the Liam Neeson™," because his work doesn't operate on that kind of cynicism. Even I Am Sam, in which he courts an Oscar by playing mentally-challenged, fits neatly into a career whose primary auteurist concern has been the sanctity and fragility of daughters' lives (see also: The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, 21 Grams, and Mystic River). So it's reassuring, sort of, to see him use The Gunman as a pulpit for his humanitarian concerns (presuming I've correctly extrapolated the political firebrand's credited contribution to the screenplay), but there is a disappointing transparency to the character, as if he's afraid that reinventing himself too much in the Neeson mold will reveal, God forbid, a desire to stay popular in a profession he has threatened to quit numerous times. In The Gunman, one of our most transformative actors--a guy who as recently as 2011 turned himself into the spitting image of The Cure's Robert Smith and affected a childlike drawl for the length of a feature--comports himself with a tedious self-seriousness, makes time to surf, and smokes way too much to be a credible action hero. He's Sean Penn in all but name, and he's kind of a drag.
Though directed by Taken helmer Pierre Morel and Europacorp chic, The Gunman did not in fact germinate from the prolific pen of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and gives off more of a Graham Greene vibe than their international thrillers typically do. Penn's Jim Terrier is a former mercenary sniper who retires to a life of relief work following his assassination of the Congolese Minister of Mines. Narrowly escaping some hired killers who track him down eight years later, he globetrots across Europe, reconnecting with members of his unit--portrayed by a trio of overqualified actors (Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem), undoubtedly thanks to Penn's Rolodex--in an effort to suss out a reason for the belated retaliation. For good measure, he stalks old flame Annie (Jasmine Trinca) in Barcelona, where she lives as the wife of Bardem's Felix, to whom Jim bequeathed Annie, for her safety and whatnot, back when he went off the grid. Chauvinistic thinking, yes, but it proves sound when the bad guys bait their hook with her for the high-noon showdown at a bullfighting arena. First, however, she cuckolds Felix with Jim so pitilessly it feels pornographic, and mourns little for the sobbing wreck after he's put out to pasture. I'm fascinated by the disconnect between Annie's utter objectification and the lengths to which the movie goes to frame out her naughty bits when she's nude. (It feels in context like misplaced, even retrograde, chivalry.) Not to mention the eye-rolling this modesty elicits in light of the film's hardish-R ultra-violence.
Jim, by the way, also has a debilitating neurological condition resulting from one too many concussions (he's a sniper--had he been loading the gun with his head?). It's a heavy-handed metaphor for the moral cost of his previous life, but it gives the reserved Penn something showy to do, "a bit of business" as they say, and it inhibits Jim at dramatically-opportune moments so that a less macho adversary can get the drop on him. One might go as far as to say it humanizes this superhuman killing machine. What it doesn't do is advance the narrative in any meaningful way. The Gunman is a poky, dreary movie, long on rambling exposition--which it only doubles down on with the late-film introduction of an Interpol agent played by the perennially token Idris Elba, who could deliver the same performance by phone--and short on thrills. That said, the action, though fashionably spastic, is more credible than that of Taken and its sequels, which have to sacrifice clarity of contact for the sake of a PG-13 rating; the final sequence is well-staged, engineering the villain's predictable but barbarically-gratifying fate with Rube Goldberg precision and a decent money shot. Really the bright spot of The Gunman is Bardem, whose casting, unlike Penn's, never loses its novelty, although some would say he's carving out a niche for these logorrheic sad sacks, and those same someones--myself included--would probably recommend watching the Director's Cut of The Counselor. Instead.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Gunman ends with a glorified UNICEF commercial and urgent faux news reports on the evils of multinationals, yet the epitome of its pretentiousness may be the absence of behind-the-scenes content on its Blu-ray release from Universal. Still, the disc boasts a state-of-the-art presentation of a digital production made to look filmic or cinematic. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer has boundless detail but there's a nice, anamorphic softness to it, as the picture was shot with the ARRI Alexa using Panavision's C-series 'scope lenses. Depth of colour is outstanding, especially in scenes featuring the bright textiles and verdant foliage of Cape Town (here standing in for the DRC), while dynamic range is impeccable. When whites run hot or blacks crush, it's mostly to convey scorching heat or conspiratorial shadow, respectively, and the image is never nebulously dark, although some video noise creeps in whenever the sensor is being pushed to the limit. (A nighttime van ride early in the film effectively illustrates the difference between celluloid and digital, as the interior light source does not flood out the scenery passing by the van's windows.) I could only access the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD core (7.1, technically) of the attendant Dolby Atmos track, but it's fantastic. Gunshots shred the soundstage and explosions flutter our sleeves; The Gunman's is not an overly ambient mix between set-pieces, so I'm curious to know how Atmos would enhance the experience except to add more dimension to the jets of shrapnel and glass. HiDef trailers for The Loft, Blackhat, Black Sea, "Chicago P.D.", End of Watch, Nightcrawler, The Grey, and Hit & Run cue up on startup of the platter, currently packaged with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of The Gunman.