Film review: The Gunman

Hurrah for old-school 1980s action heroes – the maverick kind who don't play by the rules, smoke copiously, and prefer to engage in combat bare-chested.

Sean Penn's unbalanced intensity is renowned and in The Gunman it finds a welcome home. Nostromo Pictures
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The Gunman

Director: Pierre Morel

Starring: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba

Three stars

Hurrah for old-school 1980s action heroes. You know the kind – the mavericks who play by their own rules, smoke copiously and prefer to engage in combat bare-chested. That’s what Sean Penn channels in this satisfying throwback thriller, in which the body count is only topped by the number of times he sparks up a cigarette.

We begin in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Penn plays Jim Terrier, a morally adrift gun-for-hire called on to execute a minister. Fast forward eight years and Terrier is back in DRC, digging wells to atone for his sins, when three killers show up hungry for revenge. Terrier realises the past is gone but not forgotten.

He flees to London, starts a bar fight, visits a neurologist and teams up with bit-part sidekick Stanley (a typecast Ray Winstone). Fresh leads take Terrier to Barcelona, Gibraltar and back again, where he encounters the suspiciously bumbling Felix (played delightfully by Javier Bardem), who ordered the assassination eight years ago.

When he’s not breaking skulls, Penn spends a lot of screen time flexing his muscles, chewing the scenery and, as mentioned, smoking. Oh, and throwing up, because as if it wasn’t unbelievable enough that a 54-year-old could floor teams of younger, trained killers unassisted, let’s have him suffering from an ill-defined “cumulative brain trauma”, too, which leaves Terrier prone to passing out at inopportune moments and forgetting things – important things.

A lot of lazy comparisons have been made between Penn's late-career, action-hero about-turn and Liam Neeson's macho resuscitation in 2008's Taken. It's inevitable, really, as The Gunman is directed by the man behind the original Taken, Pierre Morel. Penn's role as co-writer and co-producer suggest premeditation from an actor capable of so much more (try to imagine a better lead actor in Milk, Tree of Life or Sweet and Lowdown).

But Penn is a much scarier kind of killer. Terrier is a stringless wild card, an unbalanced loner who steals strangers’ clothes and pathologically stalks a lover he walked out on.

Penn’s unbalanced intensity is renowned and here it finds a welcome home, recalling a time when action heroes were mysterious, cloudy men who didn’t need smartphones and were fighting their conscience as much as their enemies.

The Gunman's many flaws aren't worth listing. Yet its tightly wound series of hair-raising action scenes in exotic locations offer undistilled, teeth-grinding pleasure – the closing piece in the midst of a bull fight is worth the ticket price alone.

Things close with a ham-fisted political polemic about the scourge of western business interests in the developing world. Job done, Penn.

The Gunman is out in cinemas on Thursday, March 19