The Gunman: This Time the Grizzled Ex-Killer Is Sean Penn

A spoilereview of the actor’s sanctimonious bid to be the next Liam Neeson

Sean Penn in "The Gunman"
Open Road Films

Sometimes a movie is so manifestly ill-conceived that the best one can do is throw up one’s hands in surrender and acknowledge the truth: It is impossible to indict this film as thoroughly as it indicts itself.

I’ve gone down this road a handful of times before. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day (career lows for both directors) demanded straightforward recapitulations. The Words (starring Bradley Cooper) required a run-on sentence and Broken City (Mark Wahlberg) an actual diagram. Then along came Luc Besson’s Lucy, starring Scarlett Johannson, which in many ways put all the rest to shame.

And so, with another awful cinematic experience—Sean Penn’s new vanity project, The Gunman—comes another prophylactic spoilereview. In brief, the movie is a dull, generic retread of nearly every action movie you’ve ever seen, with the reluctant super-soldier haunted by his past and enmeshed in a conspiracy, etc., etc. But it's made far worse by Penn’s self-seriousness as an actor, by the banal and insulting political pieties that he's grafted on as producer and co-writer, and by the presence of perhaps the most pitifully retrograde female lead role to appear onscreen in the past two decades.

If, in spite of these deficiencies, you think you may still want to watch the film, I recommend that you stop reading now, because the spoilers are about to begin. As before, the intent here is to offer an alternative to seeing the film at all. This may take a while, but it will be shorter than the movie itself, as well as less expensive and, with luck, moderately more entertaining. Onward.

1. Before the screening I attended began, there was a brief in-person demonstration by a local mixed martial arts club. Illustrating a defensive jujitsu move to be used against an assailant with a pistol, one of the instructors explained, “It’s easier to get out of the way of the bullet when it’s still in the gun.” This was literally the best line of dialogue I would hear all night.

2. The director of The Gunman is Pierre Morel, who also directed Liam Neeson’s surprise 2008 hit Taken. This has led virtually everyone alive to note that Penn was hoping this movie would be his Taken, which is true enough. But Morel aside, it could as easily have been Penn’s RED or The Expendables or November Man or The Book of Eli or Escape Plan or any of a dozen other examples. Mid-budget action movies—i.e., ones not laden with CGI—have been dominated by middle-agers for a good while now. The reason is simple, as one executive explained to Vulture two years and countless “geri-action” releases ago: When it comes to stars, “foreign buyers buy yesterday. They don’t buy tomorrow.

3. But on to the movie itself. It begins grimly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, in 2006. As images of atrocities and starving babies flash across the screen, newscasters trade political shorthand: “world’s deadliest conflict,” “private security contractors,” “vast mineral wealth,” “to meet the growing demand of the Western world.” Did I mention that Penn co-wrote the screenplay? The vague (okay, not always that vague) whiff of sanctimony that accompanies almost everything he does is in the air from the opening credits on.

4. Penn’s character, Jim Terrier—and yes, I believe this name was spit out by some action-hero algorithm—enters a cantina where his beautiful girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), is waiting. She is an aid worker at a local clinic; he’s a security contractor. When she sets eyes on him, she lights up as if she just saw all the puppies in the world gamboling together. (She will do this a lot.) My notes read: SHE IS CLEARLY GOING TO DIE.

5. Also in the bar is a colleague of theirs named Felix, who’s played by someone who looks identical to Javier Bardem but somehow seems to lack any of his talent. He drools when he looks at Annie and grimaces when he sees how she looks at Jim. This will end badly.

5. There’s an operation set to take place in Kinshasa, the assassination of a government minister. Felix, who is the go-between with the shadowy client, says the shooter will have to leave the country immediately after the killing. Jim turns out to be the shooter. See what Felix did there? Very clever. I cross out what I wrote before and write: SHE IS CLEARLY GOING TO END UP WITH BARDEM.

6. Jim shoots the minister and leaves the country. Flash forward eight years. Jim is back in the DRC, but now he works for an aid group providing safe drinking water. This is how we know that, despite having had no evident compunction about murdering a foreign leader in cold blood, at heart he’s really a good guy.

7. We now interrupt this geopolitical action film to showcase a brief sequence of Sean Penn surfing off the Congolese coast. Really. There are so many Jeff Spicoli jokes competing for space in my head right now that they have somehow cancelled each other out. (Sorry.) But we do get to see how ridiculously buff Penn has gotten for this role. So there’s that.

8. Back at work, Jim has headaches when he remembers the minister’s assassination, so we know he feels really bad about it. Later, while he’s digging a well, a squad of paramilitary thugs shows up asking, “Where is the white man?” They attack Jim and he kills most of them, before being saved at the last second by his young assistant. Unless I’m mistaken, said assistant is the only African in the movie to have any spoken lines other than “Where is the white man?” And even he only has about three. We never see him again after this scene.

9. Jim goes to London to find out who’s trying to kill him. He assumes the plot must be connected to the DRC assassination eight years earlier. (Spoiler: It is.) He meets with two old colleagues: Terry (Mark Rylance) is now a rich executive at the security firm where they both used to work; Stanley (Ray Winstone) still looks like a beach bum. It’s immediately clear that one of these characters will turn out to be the Secret Villain and the other the Loyal Friend. I’m guessing Terry will be the former, because he’s rich, and Sean Penn notionally dislikes rich people despite being one himself. But perhaps we’ll be surprised.

10. Jim goes to a pub with Stanley. He’s wearing a T-shirt. (Jesus, Penn is ripped. His biceps look like a medical condition, with Jackmanesque veins that seem ready to slither off his body altogether.) Jim gets into a pointless fight with soccer fans and then has another terrible headache, with double vision and vomiting. Stanley takes him to the doctor.

11. After conducting a brain scan, the doctor says Jim might have early onset Alzheimer’s. But then everyone remembers that was the illness in Julianne Moore’s movie last year. So they conclude instead that he has “post-concussion syndrome” from all his years of fighting wars. Smart, right? A topical ailment—with ties to the NFL controversy—that no one has yet played in a major motion picture. It’s perfect. We’re now officially an issue movie. This will be your I Am Sam, Penn! (Oh wait. I Am Sam was your I Am Sam. Forget I brought it up.)

12. The doctor tells Jim, “Avoid anything strenuous to your head.” This is what is called ironic foreshadowing. Or it would be if the movie didn’t completely forget about Jim’s head trauma for the next hour or so of very head-unfriendly activity. We’re no longer officially an issue movie.

13. Having learned that Felix—who may have information about the plot against him—is living in Barcelona, Jim tells Stanley, “I gotta go, Stan. Do you hear me? I gotta go.” There’s a lot of dialogue like this in the movie.

14. Jim goes to Barcelona, where he is surprised (unlike anyone in the audience) to discover that Felix and Annie are now married. Maybe Jim doesn’t have Facebook. In any case, he takes it very badly. He follows the now-rich Felix to a business conference, and while Felix is taking part in a panel discussion he heckles him from the audience, shouting about “money.” Afterward, he lectures him, “Not all of us tried to turn our sins into profit” and “I was drilling wells.” This tedious subtheme might be more persuasive if there hadn’t already been so much real-world talk about how the studio hopes The Gunman will launch a wildly lucrative franchise, a la Taken. (Spoiler: It won’t.)

15. Felix accuses Jim of having come to Barcelona to try to steal Annie back. But he nonetheless suggests they all get together for dinner at a swanky restaurant at 10 p.m. Ah, Europe.

16. It turns out that Felix is testing Annie’s faithfulness by not telling her that Jim is in town and coming to dinner. When Jim shows up at the restaurant, a surprised Annie eye-rapes him for what seems like ten minutes. Felix looks at her radioactive lust-face with manifest disgust. Jim looks upon Felix’s disgust with outright contempt. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen an actual human being make any of the mime/kabuki expressions on display in this scene. Annie says, “You’re humiliating me.” Felix says, “The way you stare at him humiliates you.” Annie flees the restaurant and Jim says to Felix, “You proud of yourself?” Burn.

17. Jim goes back to his hotel room. There’s a knock on the door. It’s Annie. She comes in and immediately proceeds to have passionate adultery with him. Afterward, she tells him that she has never loved Felix, but was grateful to him for protecting her after Jim abandoned them in the DRC. “I tried to pay the debt with marriage,” she says. “I’m still paying. He’s still collecting.” (Not to make an obvious observation, Annie, but the whole point of marriage is that it's not supposed to be a temporary arrangement.) Then she tells Jim that the reason she came to his room was because Felix sent her. He may have information about who it was who tried to have Jim killed. She tells Jim to come to their country house for lunch the next day.

17a. Just in case you missed it—or, more likely, refused to believe it—let me relate that sequence one more time. Felix tells Jim he thinks he’s trying to steal Annie. Then, at dinner, he berates Annie for ostentatiously ogling Jim. And then, he sends Annie to Jim’s hotel room, where the two of them do in fact have sex. At what point in the writers’ minds did any of this make sense? Plus, now everyone has to have the world’s most awkward lunch at the country house.

18. When Jim arrives there the next day, Felix is cartoonishly drunk, stumbling around and shouting at him: “Peekaboo! Romeo, Romeo, Romeo.” When Annie comes back from riding horses, Felix tells her to shower—because, you know, she also had sex with Jim last night. Jim tries to find out what Felix knows about his attempted killers, but Felix basically ignores him because he’s having so much fun with what is devolving into an improvisational, one-man rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

19. It turns out (surprise!) that Felix is in league with the people trying to kill Jim. He’d invited Jim to the country house to find out whether he had any evidence that would connect his old company to the assassination in the DRC. Unfortunately, Felix is no condition to grill Jim, having already gotten extravagantly drunk in a way that no person would ever get under such lethal circumstances, no matter how jealous he was. Felix gets in touch with his cohorts, who send murderous bad guys to the house. They kill the now-a-liability Felix, and thank God for that. Of all the reasons for you not to see this film, perhaps the best one is that Javier Bardem's reputation surely wants very much for you not to see it.

20. The bad guys try to kill Jim and Annie. Jim kills them instead. Annie screams. A lot. It is by this point in the film clear that Annie’s character has precisely three purposes in the film: to stare at Jim in exorbitant awe, adoration, and/or lust; to scream until he saves her; and to get up every morning wearing a man’s oxford shirt and no pants, as if she just walked out of a 1980s Van Heusen commercial. (Do not skip that link. Trust me.) The character is an affront to pretty much every woman alive. It’s notable, too, that despite having far more screen time than anyone other than Penn, Trinca is billed below all her other male co-stars.

21. As it happens, Jim has been holding onto evidence of the company’s complicity in the DRC murder, and he needs to go back to his hotel in Barcelona to retrieve it. So he sneaks in, gets the information, and notices there's a booby trap in the room and goons watching from across the street. But rather than just leave the way he came, he lures said goons to the room so that he can ostentatiously kill them with the booby trap. I’m sure that there are ways to reconcile a movie about a man who is deeply remorseful for past killings with a movie that delights in showing how gifted he is at killing new folks. This isn’t it.

22. Laying his heavy head on Annie’s shoulder in the car, Jim tells her to “just drive until you can’t drive anymore.” They go to a house where his friend Stanley is staying, and Stanley tells him that he might get useful information about who is masterminding the attempts on his life from the company office in Gibraltar. In the middle of the night, while Annie is asleep in bed—it’s better this way, to avoid a tearful scene—Jim once again leaves her, because he loves her too much to involve her any further. Of course, given that by now the bad guys know all about Annie’s involvement, this is entirely stupid. But how else will she wind up being taken hostage in time for the movie’s final act?

23. Jim travels to Gibraltar, were he squints committedly in the sunlight, as if he’s auditioning for a role in a Sergio Leone film. Eventually, he encounters an Interpol agent (Idris Elba in what, despite his prominent billing, is barely a cameo) who delivers a powerfully tedious monologue about building treehouses. (It's a metaphor, you see.) Jim also sees Terry, his old, wildly successful colleague from the security firm, and it turns out that—wait for it—Terry’s the Secret Villain pulling all the strings to get Jim killed, and scruffy Stanley is the Loyal Friend after all. During a showdown, Terry sneers at Jim that Annie is "damaged goods" because she was repeatedly raped in the DRC after Jim left—a thoroughly unpleasant nugget we’ve never heard about before and will never hear about again. Jim’s brain-trauma headaches recur (remember them? The last several action sequences didn’t) and he barely escapes to pass out on the street between two dumpsters. Luckily, the crack global security firm hot on his heels that desperately wants to kill him doesn’t think to look between the dumpsters.

24. Terry calls Jim’s cell phone. He’s taken both Stanley and Annie hostage, as recommended in the invaluable handbook Villainy For Idiots. While Jim listens, Terry shoots Stanley in the face, because that’s what Secret Villains do to Loyal Friends. He also threatens to kill Annie, unless Jim brings all his evidence against the company to a bullfight in Barcelona. Because, you know: Spain. (Here I feel obligated to point out that bullfighting has in fact been outlawed in Barcelona since 2012.)

25. A brief step back before we conclude to note that the principal purpose of every single character in this film is to illuminate Jim’s (that is, Sean Penn’s) wonderfulness. Scruffy, roly-poly Stanley loved him enough to die for him. Terry and Felix both betrayed him utterly and trashed the love of his life. Annie, as we’ve discussed, is simultaneously the Good Woman whose love redeems his bad acts (she works in a clinic in the DRC, etc.) and also the moth so drawn to his mad-lover flame that she cheats on her husband after approximately 4.3 seconds in Jim's presence. And, against all reason, Elba’s Interpol agent seems to consider Jim an ally, rather than—given that he’s the man who pulled the trigger in a political assassination—a principal conspirator and target of his investigation.

26. Penn’s character itself is, if anything, worse. Usually a star performance this self-loving (Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, The Prince of Tides) is self-directed, but Penn has gone the writing/producing route instead. The end result is pretty much the same. Like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, Penn’s Jim Terrier is an amalgam of incompatible virtues: the Tragic Loner and the Loyal Lover; the Haunted Killer and the Inexorable Killer; the Doomed Sinner and the Last Honest Man. Plus, when he’s doing his day job, the Great White Savior.

27. So now we’re at the bullfight, where Terry will trade Annie for all the evidence Jim may have against the company. Much silliness takes place (including, of course, the obvious fact that Jim could have infinite copies of his evidence stashed anywhere). A couple of baddies are sent out into the stands and backlots of the arena to take Jim out. And though he deals with them, his long-forgotten brain issue is becoming ever more debilitating. In one scene, a staggering Jim is visually compared to the bull in the arena: proud, primal, doomed. In another, Terry absurdly chases Annie through the crowded stadium, brandishing a pistol, and no one seems to care.

28. Finally, it comes down to Jim, Annie, and Terry. There is a long scene with another huge, angry bull. The various gates to its pen are opened and closed repeatedly. Will the bull charge? Who will it kill? It does charge, and at the very last instant, Annie is lifted to safety. The bull runs beneath her and on into Terry, whom it gores graphically, repeatedly, and fatally. If I ever feel I need a PSA to teach my children not to play with bulls, this scene is what I'll use.

29. Jim awakes in the hospital. Elba’s Interpol agent is there and Jim agrees to hand over all his information on the DRC assassination and cooperate with the investigation. Elba cautions him that he will still have to do considerable time, which seems fair, given that Jim was himself the assassin. Annie looks on adoringly, because that’s why she’s there.

30. But wait! It’s the final scene. Annie is back in Africa, surrounded by poor black people who need her help. Will Jim one day be able to rejoin her to perform the good work (and expert sexual gratification) of which we all know he’s capable? He will. Today, in fact. With no sign that any meaningful time has elapsed—certainly not the years of prison that he presumably ought to have served—Jim strides in and embraces Annie. Everyone is happy, especially the poor Africans brought in by the props department, none of whom have any lines or even names. I, however, have developed a terrible headache. Could it be post-concussion syndrome? Probably not. But I hear it’s a thing these days.