Smooth Criminal, by David Bax
Sean Penn doesn’t play a spy in Pierre Morel’s The Gunman but there are so many hallmarks of the spy movie genre, he begins to seem like one. The double-crosses, the globe-hopping settings, the clandestine meetings; they’re all here. But unlike the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Gunman never engages with its influences. Morel doesn’t even seem to know what to do with them. It’s as if someone storyboarded all the beats and clichés of a spy movie and then someone else attempted to fill in the characters and story wherever they could fit them.
Events kick off in 2006 when Penn’s Jim Terrier (subtle!) is working for a private security firm in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, guarding the construction sites and business interests of mining companies. Their company, though, is merely a front. Jim and his cohorts (including characters played Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance) are a sort of black-ops-for-hire team. The first and only of these missions we see involves Terrier assassinating a government official and then having to flee the continent, leaving his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) behind. Eight years later, Terrier has returned to the DRC to work with a humanitarian organization when he finds out the hard way that someone is trying to kill him. Now he must travel around Europe revisiting his old compatriots to piece together what’s happening, all while struggling with the lasting effects of multiple concussions sustained during his time as a soldier (did the NFL Players Association fund this movie?). So now we’re asked to root for a man the film was quick to establish as a cold-blooded murderer. And we must do so while Ray Winstone as Terrier’s oldest friend, Stanley, lays out reams of exposition, about half of which is in the form of lazily tacked on voiceover.
Stanley only exists as a character for the aforementioned exposition and then to be put in peril. Annie fares even worse; she doesn’t get to explain anything. Mostly she just stands around in various stages of undress, crying and trembling before eventually being kidnapped. Even in our male-driven movie culture, it’s hard to think of a movie that has so flagrantly resisted treating what is nearly its only female speaking role as anything other than an object. Terrier’s guns are bigger characters than she is. The only tangentially redeeming element of her role is that it gives Penn an excuse to say, “Annie, are you okay?” and remind everyone of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” A few other characters slide in and out of the picture, including Idris Elba as a well-dressed British agent named JB (sly!), but even Terrier, as our protagonist, lacks definition. His return to Congo in a charitable position is likely meant to suggest penance but Penn’s expression of stoic determination prevents any closer examination of Terrier’s motives.
The Gunman is competently photographed by Flavio Martínez Labiano (Non-Stop, Timecrimes) but in the blandly pretty way of a travel brochure. Mostly, the imagery is the standard Bond-style collection of impressive architecture in beautiful and exotic locales – most of the film’s second half takes place in and around Barcelona. The overall impression is that of a movie that was half-intended to be experienced on a TV with the sound off during a cocktail party. At least this give us the shot of Sean Penn trying to be inconspicuous on a carousel. Nothing is more conspicuous than Sean Penn on a carousel.
It’s clear that Morel was not interested in making a fun interpretation of spy cinema (like Kingsman). But there’s no clear intent in his dull solemnity, either. A few years ago, Anton Corbijn’s The American successfully deconstructed the genre. Corbijn stripped almost everything thrilling from the spy thriller and showed us a man whose life consists less of martinis and fast cars and more of isolation, drudgery and meticulous process. It was a worthy dissection. The Gunman shows no such impetus for its amaranthine joylessness.
The Gunman is not a spy movie. It may look and act like one but it’s just a rote action flick. Morel probably thinks he’s being clever near the end when his editing compares Terrier to the bull facing off against the matador. Wounded, bleeding and weakened, he rages on. Not only is the visualization of the parallel uninspired but the observation itself is unoriginal. The analogy could apply to almost any action movie protagonist since John McClane. The closest The Gunman comes to making a point is when it crams in a scolding about privatizing government work. By that point, late in the movie, the reprimand is so unearned, it’s laughable.