Sean Penn is the Gunman

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1 out of 4

Just blame Liam Neeson.

He’s made it cool – and highly profitable – for Hollywood to take aging stars and turn them into action heroes toward the end of their careers.

Neeson, who was nominated for an Oscar for Schindler’s List in 1994, was morphed into the unstoppable Bryan Mills in the Taken franchise. Denzel Washington, who won the Oscar for best actor in 2002’s Training Day, spent his last film killing European traffickers in The Equalizer. And don’t forget about Kevin Costner, who went from being nominated for Best Actor in 1991 for Dances With Wolves to busting heads in 3 Days to Kill last year.

The best thing about The Gunman? Sean Penn's body, considering he's 54. (Open Road)
The best thing about The Gunman? Sean Penn’s body, considering he’s 54. (Open Road)

So why not put a gun in the hand of Sean Penn, who won the Oscar for best actor twice — in 2009’s Milk and in 2004’s Mystic River — and have him go to town on foreigners, too? Sounds good, doesn’t it?

The Taken franchise grossed nearly $900 million worldwide at the box office, while The Equalizer made a cool $192.3 million worldwide. Costner’s 3 Days to Kill took home $52.5 million, so maybe he should keep doing movies about managing the Cleveland Browns or coaching a high school cross country team.

But Sean Penn isn’t Liam Neeson and he’s certainly not Denzel Washington — not after his latest abomination of a movie called The Gunman.

Penn’s latest work represents more of a downward spiral to oblivion than a rebirth of a career that once seemed destined for greatness. Can you even name a good Sean Penn movie since Milk? If you said Gangster Squad, then please stop reading.

The Gunman had the story line for the movie to hit its mark, yet resulted in a 115-minute geopolitical thriller that kept shooting blanks.

The story opens in the Republic of Congo, where Penn’s Jim Terrier is working as a hit man for an international corporation under the guise of carrying out philanthropy in a country mired in a gruesome Civil War. Sean’s supposedly madly in love with some do-good doctor named Anne (Jasmine Trinca) but then is forced to leave Africa when he does what he’s paid to do — put a bullet in a high-ranking target.

When was the last time you saw a good movie that starred Sean Penn? (Open Road)
When was the last time you saw a good movie that starred Sean Penn? (Open Road)

Eight years later, Jim is back in the Congo apparently doing charitable work for real this time when some locals try to kill him. He survives, but for the movie’s sake, it might have been better if he got hacked to bits.

Anyway, Jim becomes hell-bent on finding out why he was targeted for death, a journey that takes him to London, Paris, Gibraltar and Barcelona. Along the way, he sees Annie has married who he thought was a friend, so naturally, Jim wants her back eight years after disappearing. Really?

You’re saying a guy who made his living as an assassin doesn’t have the connections to find a doctor that he apparently can’t live without? Heck, Neeson needed a few days to find his abducted daughter in Taken. But hey, Penn’s no Neeson.

But give Penn credit: at 54, he has a body that would rival some 20-somethings. This is illustrated during a surfing scene, which is probably the first time Penn has been on a surfboard since he was America’s favorite stoner, Jeff Spicoli, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. Penn certainly hasn’t been good at making movies in the past five years, but he’d win an Oscar for working out. He’s one of the few 50-somethings who don’t need to waste their time putting on a shirt.

The poor use of Idris Elba's character in The Gunman is just one of the movie's many flaws. (Open Road)
The poor use of Idris Elba’s character in The Gunman is just one of the movie’s many flaws. (Open Road)

But Penn’s acting is nowhere as hot as his body. He just doesn’t look comfortable as an action hero and even the bad guys, played by Oscar winner Javier Bardem and three-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance, failed miserably at getting the audience to hate them.

Director Pierre Morel, who turned Neeson’s career around with the first Taken in 2008, simply can’t replicate his success with Penn, despite Penn being younger and way sexier. Morel keeps Penn running across Europe while he’s pursued by hit men who are about as accurate as Robert Griffin III.

Even Morel can’t take advantage of Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, No Good Deed, The Wire), as he’s an Interpol agent whose character makes as much sense as the Seahawks throwing the ball from the 1-yard line late in the Super Bowl.

The Gunman, with the right cast, could have hit the mark. Instead, it misses the target badly, with the only victims those who pay to see it.