Laurence Olivier (nominated for an Oscar nine times and winning once), played towering roles – Othello, Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III. But in 1965, right after career defining roles in The Entertainer and Spartacus, he took on the role of a police detective in Otto Preminger’s dreary Bunny Lake Is Missing, prompting film critic Alexander Walker to remark, “Only a great actor can make himself so small. It is a rare sight.”
The same can be said of Sean Penn (nominated for an Oscar five times and winning twice – for Mystic River and Milk). A few years after his Oscar win for Milk, Penn, mired in a career fog with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Gangster Squad, is now like Olivier making himself small, following in the footsteps of Liam Neeson as the dour middle-age man with a firearm in The Gunman, a film he not only stars in but co-wrote and produced. Taking no chances and cementing the connection with the Neeson films, he requisitioned Taken director Pierre Morel to helm The Gunman. But unlike Neeson, Penn is too strong an actor for a revenge fantasy shoot-’em-up and, aside from a few scenes showing off his six-pack abs and Popeye-inflated armature (Penn looks like a baseball player from the 1990s), which is an amusing display of mid-life crisis angst by the actor, The Gunman starts off strenuously overbearing and ends up a parody of itself.
Penn is Jim Terrier, a tough lug working for a private security contractor in the Congo, protecting mine workers. But his day job is a cover for his night job as a hitman for a shady organization bent on bringing down the government. All hell breaks loose when Felix (Javier Bardem) has Terrier assassinate Congo’s Minister of Mining. Terrier has to quickly leave the country and his doctor girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) behind. Years later, Terrier returns to Africa to assist in mining efforts for the poor, when goons drive up in a truck brandishing guns and screaming “Where is the white man?” That means Jim. Pursuing Jim through the jungle, Jim, a one-man killing machine, wipes out his pursuers (Jim is good at cracking necks and collecting guns) and concludes that he is now a target. Jim hightails it out of the Congo with a bag of false passports, traveling to London, Gibraltar, and Barcelona on a tour of terror, visiting his old colleagues and trying to track down the instigator of his death sentence.
Jim Terrier is not really a character but a propulsive force, like an avatar in a shooter video game. Penn attempts to give life to this computer program by settling upon a snarling look of grim determination until erupting into orgasmic shouts of pain when Jim breaks heads and guns down upon his adversaries – Clint Eastwood getting a spinal tap. As Jim remarks when one character asks him what he is hunting, “Whatever is in season. I just got to shoot something.”
Given the one note trajectory of the film, the least that could be expected is for Jim to do a little work at finding out who is out to get him. But Jim doesn’t really uncover anything. He merely visits the next supporting actor on his list (Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance) who provides him names. He doesn’t even beat information out of anyone. He gets the document, looks out the window, sees killers advancing and then goes kill crazy.
As The Gunman proceeds, the set pieces get more and more absurd until the film hits the heights of hilarity with an allegorical speech about building tree houses between Penn and special guest Interpol agent Idris Elba and a final confrontation in a bullfighting ring with one mean and angry bull.
As for myself, I am taking the advice of an emergency room doctor in the film, “Take care of your mind and avoid stress.” Along with The Gunman.