Pierre Morel’s The Gunman is watchable in a sense, not because it has any inherent value within the bounds of its own merits, but because it’s accidentally interesting. The Gunman is strange, but not because of any real idiosyncrasy or self-indulgence on the part of Morel, but more because the film is pretty inept in many ways and full of decisions that seem odd. The main one is obviously trying to turn Sean Penn into some kind of beefcake action star, one who’s constantly taking his shirt off and even surfing on occasion. This alone is bizarre enough but is eventually compounded by the sense that Penn’s character — the hit man called Terrier — comes across as an incompetent bonehead. Part of this might be Terrier’s brain damage from years of fighting and shooting and other various and sundry activities (a trait that actually drives the plot), but it doesn’t account for how much of a dolt Terrier comes across as. This I firmly blame on Penn, whose whole method-actor schtick simply isn’t cut out for this kind of tough guy business.
Based on French author Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman (which was also published as a graphic novel called Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot, either one of which makes a much better title), the film follows Terrier, a former assassin with a complicated, violent past. This past includes shooting a mining minister in the Congo, an act that forced the country into chaos and him into hiding and away from Annie (Jasmine Trinca), the woman he loves. This catches up with him eight years later, as he returns to the Congo to redeem himself and dig wells in poor villages, until some nameless militants show up and try to kill him. Terrier then hits the road, trying to find who from his past is out to murder him, putting him back in Annie’s path and that of former friends who he may or may not be able to trust.
As I mentioned, much of the film is pushed forward by Terrier’s brain damage — a trait that actually feels fresh, gives The Gunman’s anti-hero a legitimate weakness and critiques people who spend their lives inside violence. But it doesn’t really go anywhere and is used more as a contrivance than anything else. Much of the film is this way — it’ll start to at least appear interesting only to slowly fizzle or is never quite developed. The political commentary — based on the West’s interference in Africa and its domino effects — is a half-baked afterthought. There’s a sense that Morel and company think that what they’re talking about is important and intelligent, but the ideas never develop. That The Gunman also doesn’t have anything in the way of original or even entertaining action makes everything all the worse. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality.