Sean Penn evades a vengeful death squad in "The Gunman."
Sean Penn's craggy face in The Gunman is a roadmap of regret for a man haunted by a dark and shameful past. An ex-mercenary who pulled the trigger in the assassination of a high-ranking official of the Democratic Republic of the Congo almost a decade ago, the reformed operative has returned to the African nation for humanitarian reasons, ostensibly to wash away the guilt of the murderous deed that further plunged the troubled country into social and political chaos.
When a death squad searching for the "white man" attempts to kill him, however, it's clear that yesterday's sins have finally caught up with him. What ensues in The Gunman is an international game of cat and mouse that hopscotches from central Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar, one in which Penn's beleaguered Jim Terrier tries to piece together the identities of his would-be assassins while protecting the woman he loves from the danger sparked by his nefarious past.
The bone-crunching, bloodletting action sequences in this thriller from the director of Taken keep the adrenaline flowing, despite the implausibility of Terrier's continued survival amid the volley of semiautomatic bullets and thrown punches. While the film's amped-up violence keeps your attention, its core conflict -- Terrier's anguish over the man he was versus the man he is -- never really gels.
Try as Penn may, his character's before-and-after transformation never takes because you're only fleetingly acquainted with the cold-blooded killer who appears in the film's first 20 minutes. Likewise, the movie's veiled indictment of multinational corporate interests that generate unrest in Third World nations for their own financial gain (undoubtedly a factor motivating Penn's participation in the film) also falls somewhat flat, taking a back seat to the shoot-'em-up histrionics.
As Terrier's former conspiratorial colleague and romantic rival, however, Javier Bardem knocks it out of the ballpark with his all-too-brief performance as a weak-willed, insecure man who allows his emotions to trump rational behavior. He's mesmerizing in all his messy humanity. When Bardem is onscreen, the emotional stakes are high, engaging you in a way the principal storyline fails to do. It's a masterful turn by a masterful actor, one that's blissfully on-target in The Gunman.