Many people of my generation regard Sean Penn as our Robert De Niro — the serious actor, the tough guy, the top banana. But the fact is, the two-time Oscar winner (De Niro has also won twice) has made relatively few films of significance, given that his career dates back to the mid-1970s. He's averaged roughly one good film per decade, give or take, and, since 2010, the dude is zero for eight. (I'd love to see the Netflix numbers for Gangster Squad.)
It's been 12 years since Mystic River, 20 since Dead Man Walking. Penn has developed a reputation for taking chances and being uncompromising in his work — even the duds. So it's sad to see him now doing the same thing virtually every other actor pushing 60 has done in recent years and going the Taken career-resuscitation route. How Taken-y is The Gunman? It was directed by Pierre Morel, the guy who gave us Taken.
Penn plays Jim Terrier, yet another former operative for some shadowy agency who dusts off his very particular set of skills to protect someone close to him. In this case, that's the love of his life, Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Once upon a time, you see, Jim had a make-believe job in the Congo with either a private security contractor or a company that builds airfields or some sort of NGO. The film's first act is among the most muddled, incomprehensible stretches of nonsense in the history of make-believe geopolitical thrillers. I seriously doubt Penn could tell you what his character was pretending to do in Africa, and he cowrote the thing.
I guess it doesn't matter, since his real job title was hired assassin. For reasons never made clear, Javier Bardem (who's unbelievably awful here) made Jim shoot the Congo's minister of mining and go into hiding. When Jim resurfaces eight years later in 2014, he hooks back up with Annie — literally minutes before his past comes back to haunt him in the form of muscle-bound men with ear pieces and weapons the size of French horns.
The globe is dutifully trotted, cars are chased, Jim gets a concussion from explosions (yes, the film has an actual concussion subplot), and Trinca summons all the skill at her disposal to look scared. Also squandered are such wonderful actors as Ray Winstone and Idris Elba. Everywhere Jim goes, TVs in the background slip in references to civil war, starvation, vast mineral wealth and the Western world's insatiable demand, so it's really easy to tell which parts of the script Penn wrote.
I should mention that the aging star is so buff he appears to be Photoshopped from the neck down. He takes his shirt off a lot. In one scene, he even goes surfing off the Congolese coast (insert Jeff Spicoli joke here). But that's not what Penn wants you to think about. He wants you to think about multinational corporations and their unethical treatment of people in developing countries. Or something equally sanctimonious in the context of a movie about a murderer who's too sexy for his shirt.
The whole overlong mess comes to a head in Barcelona. At a bullfight, of course. Morel breaks the corn barrier with a sequence that cuts between a beast being finished off in the ring and Jim collapsing nearby, brought to his knees by punishing blows, regret and humanitarian guilt. In reality, the sport has been outlawed in Catalonia since 2012. But that's not the only reason I say that the animal with all the banderillas sticking out of it isn't the only bull in The Gunman.