It’s no surprise that the blockbuster The Bourne Identity has inspired more than one subsequent tough guy action thriller. While The Gunman isn’t a complete rip-off, there are definitely a number of aspects of the story that are inspired by the exploits of Jason Bourne.
The title character of The Gunman is Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a sniper who assassinates the Minister of Mining in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, and is then immediately whisked out of the country for his own protection. Problem is, he was in a relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a medical volunteer and part of a non-governmental relief organization and that’s a very ungraceful way to end things. He vanishes and she has no clue what’s happened, never hearing from him again. Fellow assassin Felix (Javier Bardem) has also fallen in love with Annie and it’s he who consoles her when Terrier vanishes from the DRC. Awkward.
Eight years later Terrier is back in the Congo on a relief project of his own helping drill water wells in the still impoverished nation when a hit squad targets him and violence ensues. It seems that all those years later the assassination squad is blown and Terrier’s life is at grave risk. He heads back to London, meets up with mate Stanley (Ray Winstone) and former squad leader Cox (Mark Rylance), where he learns that Felix is now based in Barcelona and married to Annie.
The cat and mouse game begins in earnest from that point, with Felix the ambiguous, slightly off-kilter head of a global security firm and manipulative husband to Annie, who quickly accepts Terrier reappearing in her life. Is Cox clean? Can Stanley be trusted? And what of Interpol and its savvy operative DuPont (Idris Elba)?
There’s violence enough for any action fan, including a couple of cringe-worthy gory deaths, and while there’s some element of The Superhero Syndrome (where the protagonist never seems to get hurt and recovers almost instantly from any violence to his person) Penn is a rugged, believable ex-Special Forces assassin suddenly required to resurrect all of his violent skills. Unlike other older action stars — Liam Neeson, anyone? — by the end of the movie, Jim Terrier is quite banged up and not ready to go dancing.
I enjoyed The Gunman. With its use of BBC footage for verisimilitude, settings in the Democratic Republic of Congo, London and Barcelona, and participation of European-based distribution house StudioCanal, it felt more like a foreign action film than an American production, reminding me of the Clive Owens film The International. Penn delivers a splendid performance in the title role and Jasmine Trinca is very good as the jilted love interest.
There are some definite problems in the film, however, the greatest of which was the performance of Javier Bardem. Bardem delivered a splendid performance in Skyfall as the creepy, off-kilter bad guy to Daniel Craig’s Bond, but in The Gunman he hits the same erratic notes and it not only doesn’t work, it undermines the entire film. As a love triangle, he’s so creepy and alarming, it’s impossible to understand why Annie would be interested in him, and in contemporary Barcelona, his character bounces between sly, clueless, drunk and serious. Is he a good character? A bad character, part of the nefarious back story? Even after the film ends you might be confused on this point.
Superb actor Idris Elba is also criminally underutilized in the film, barely accounting for ten minutes on screen. More Elba and less Bardem would have made for a tighter story and a far more sensible narrative too.
Still, flawed though it is, I will recommend The Gunman to fans of this genre. It’s an interesting story, competently acted and assembled, and a good addition to the action thriller genre. If we can just get a directors cut that fixes Bardem’s role…