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In terms of expectations, you might go to see The Gunman thinking you’re about to see “Sean Penn get his Liam Neeson on.” You’d be justified in feeling that way, especially because the film is directed by Pierre Morel- the man that helmed Neeson’s Taken. Heck, the trailers want you to think that this is a straightforward “man on a vengeful quest” action flick- with one spot I found particularly humorous because it uses Kid Rock’s bravado-soaked “American Bad Ass” as its underscore. The truth is, The Gunman is much more than that.

Then again, that may not come as too much of a surprise considering its star is Sean Penn. Penn is known almost as much for his off-screen actions as his on-screen work. He’s a crusader for liberal causes, who’s also known for being a bit of a self-serious hot head. So would anyone ever fully believe he’d sign up for just any ol’ run-of-the-mill action flick? Indeed, the mercurial star even gets a co-writing credit on The Gunman. So what you have here is an action movie that is layered with ideas, driven by character, and laced with emotional intimacy.

Once you’ve realized that, the question becomes: Can a film with such lofty ambitions support all of that heft, or will it collapse under the weight of its own ideas?

I can safely say that Penn, Morel, and everyone involved with this film pulled it all off. They have their cake, and they’re eating it, too. The Gunman has tons of visceral action, a fun twist or two (which I won’t spoil), and still manages to have something to say.

While many of these modern day R-rated action movies revel in the violence, brutality, and the shock value of watching actors like Neeson, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves do unspeakable things to waves of bad guys, Penn’s film has all that but also takes careful time to explore the consequences of such violence. This sort of thoughtfulness is present across several aspects of the film. In a sequence early in the movie, Penn’s Jim Terrier takes out a three-man crew sent to kill him. As he walks away from the scene, giving a friend instructions on how to get to safety, we see that he’s partially hyperventilating. Just because he’s a lethal, efficient killing machine doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. This is not your typical “Cool Guy Walking Towards The Camera In Slow Motion As Something Behind Him Explodes” action hero.

And I love that.

As the story unfolds, and we see that a contract killing he completed years ago has lead to all kinds of turmoil, we also learn that the years of gunfire, fistfights, and explosions have left him suffering from post-concussion syndrome. He lives with intense migraines, violent mood swings, and his memory is starting to fail him. The life he lead has taken its toll, but the tremors from the aforementioned contract killing continue to threaten him and any shot he has at happiness. 

The production actually has more in common with a Bond film than Taken, with a plot that takes us from the Congo to London and then to Barcelona. Someone is trying to kill Terrier, and he needs to figure out who and why. Along the way, he finds that an old flame has moved on- after he abruptly left her, following the completion of a covert op. Her name is Annie, and she’s played by Jasmine Trinca. Knowing that this has something to do with what went down in the Congo, he tracks down the men he was on that assignment with: Felix (Javier Bardem) and Cox (Mark Rylance). He also enlists the help of an old friend, Stanley, who’s played by Ray Winstone.

All the actors playtheir parts exceptionally well, with Bardem getting a chance to steal a few scenes right out from under Penn. I also found the friendship between Penn and Winstone to feel very authentic, and their comradery really brought something special to their scenes together.

It’s Trinca, though, who is given a moment that I think really sets the film apart from its peers:

At the end of an exceedingly long and difficult day, Annie excuses herself from the dinner table, goes to the bedroom, closes the door, walks to the bed, and quietly falls apart. She has just been through a lot. In the span of a day she has had to deal with the loss of someone she trusted, the revelation that a long lost love is a hitman, and now has to accept that her life is in great peril and will never be the same again. This quiet, powerful moment isn’t one usually afforded the love interest in movies like these and it really stuck with me. Even days later, that moment is still resonating for me.

The fact that the film has such a strong balance of action, character, plot, and ideas is what makes the finale so disappointing. Everything about the film felt very well planned out, grown up, and like a true Thinking Man’s action film. The movie was cruising towards an easy A for me, but the finale- staged in a bull-fighting arena- is where some outright silliness takes place that drops it down a full letter. You have a villain character that has demonstrated that he’s quite smart, quite calculated, and very aware that his underworld dealings must never become public knowledge because it would destroy everything he’s built. Suddenly, we have that guy running around the packed arena (which seemingly has no security guards) waving a gun around.

And a bull.

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Things got really silly, really hokey, and wholly unrealistic. But that portion of the sequence only lasted about 3 minutes, so I’ll chalk it up to temporary insanity while still knocking the whole film down a letter. 

The Gunman is a finely-made grown-up thriller that has something to say. In Terrier, Penn has created a character that is fun to watch, sympathetic, and an example of what acts of war can do to a man. If American Sniper was a celebration of “the good soldier,” The Gunman is an exploration of what happens when a good soldier is asked to do bad things. The action is exciting, the quiet moments are gripping, the performances are top tier, and Morel has now proven he’s no one trick pony. 

SCORE: B