Sean Penn, armed and dangerous

Although deservedly much-acclaimed as an actor, with two Oscars to his credit (so far), Sean Penn has never really been a box-office titan. Now, perhaps following the leads of fellow veteran thespians Kevin Costner (3 Days to Kill), Pierce Brosnan (The November Man), Keanu Reeves (John Wick) and Liam Neeson (just about everything he does), he’s aiming for action-hero status in The Gunman.

Under the direction of Pierre Morel, who put Neeson through his paces in the first Taken (2008), the film is an adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, with Penn (also a producer) sharing screenwriting credit with Don Macpherson and Pete Travis.

Given Penn’s much-publicized humanitarian efforts in war-torn regions around the world, one might expect the film’s portrayal of political corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be more developed and more topical, but it’s merely a device to get the proverbial ball rolling and the action started.

It’s a lean and mean, buff and tough Penn playing Jim Terrier, an ex-government operative (read: assassin) who finds himself targeted for extermination years after his last assignment and subsequent retirement from active duty.

Jim is a guilt-riddled, hard-boiled protagonist in the Frederick Forsyth/Robert Ludlum tradition, traversing the globe (London, Barcelona, Gibraltar) to ascertain precisely who wants him dead and why. Needless to say, his latent lethal capabilities prove most useful in surviving the situation.

The Gunman follows the genre blueprint pretty closely and rather predictably, although the film unquestionably delivers the action goods. Adrenaline junkies will find this an easy way to kill two hours.

There’s also a fine cast on hand: Javier Bardem (very good), Mark Rylance (great fun), Idris Elba (not enough to do, alas), Jasmine Trinca (the obligatory woman from Jim’s past and damsel-in-distress), and Ray Winstone, who seems to have inherited the late Bob Hoskins’ character-actor mantle – which is in no way a put down. Every so often, a touch of cynical, trenchant humor surfaces, but then it’s back to the bashing, bloodshed and bullets. !