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Article by Teddy Durgin

This 'Gunman' shoots mostly blanks

There's a scene early in "The Gunman" where Sean Penn's tortured, tormented, troubled assassin has returned to the Congo in search of redemption after assassinating a high-ranking government official there years earlier. He's now part of a humanitarian organization, digging ditches and drilling for well water. And in his spare time, what does he do? He goes surfing off the African coast! And I'm sorry. Seeing him ride the waves, I just couldn't help but think of Penn's classic Jeff Spicoli character from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." I couldn't help it! I know Penn would brain me for my pop-culture knowledge of all things early '80s overwhelming the very, very serious 21st century work he's trying to do here. Heck, it's been 30+ years since "Fast Times," and Penn has rarely returned to comedy, opting instead for increasingly very, very, VERY serious roles. But when he's out there on that board in this flick, trying to shake off that bloody sniper kill he made eight years earlier that plunged the Congo deeper into civil war and forced him to walk out on the love of his life... all I kept hearing was the line "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I'm fine." Penn has come a long way since Spicoli. On one level, I applaud the guy for taking yet another left turn in his career. If you watch this flick, you'd think he'd been playing action roles for decades. This is... ahem... "taken" right from the Liam Neeson playbook. Penn is cast as Jim Terrier, a man with a particular set of skills who is forced on the run throughout Africa and Europe when he becomes the target of a hit squad. At the same time, Penn also goes the Sylvester Stallone "buff old guy" action route here. Penn is like totally a beefcake here, with muscles out the wazoo. Seriously, Taylor Lautner doesn't take off his shirt as much as Penn sheds the tight button-ups here. But Penn is still Penn, and he can't help trying to inject some social commentary into this film that gives it more weight than its B-movie structure can take. So, we get a lot of talk about how multinational corporations are trying to ruthlessly control the resources of the developing Third World and how they must be exposed and stopped. Penn enlists some fantastic actors to come along for the ride here too, also playing mercenary killers - namely Oscar winner Javier Bardem, multiple Golden Globe nominee Idris Elba, the great Shakespearean thespian Mark Rylance and character actor extraordinaire Ray Winstone. Three of these four are quite literally wasted here, and the fourth is barely in the film. The focus stays squarely on Penn, and the action hero/anti-hero role just doesn't suit him as well as it does guys like Neeson, Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, etc. Actually, on the drive home from my preview screening last week, I couldn't help but chuckle at what a reworked old Steven Seagal flick this movie really is at its heart, especially those early efforts like "Above the Law" and "On Deadly Ground" where the chop-suey star tried to inject some political heft into his silly tales of bone snapping. Oh, and Penn - ever in need of an acting challenge - gives his character the added tic of suffering from Post-Concussion Syndrome, too. So there are several instances in the film where Jim is put in jeopardy and this triggers hyper-violent headaches that cause Penn to fall to his knees, writhe on the ground in extreme pain and generally over-act the Hell out of such scenes. It also doesn't help that he is paired with the beautiful Italian actress Jasmine Trinca as his love interest, who looks distractingly young opposite Penn. A quick check of her bio page shows that she was born just one year before "Fast Times" hit screens. Bogus! If the film had been more of a slow-burn, centered on mystery and intrigue, with bursts of hard-R action, all concerned might have really had something here. But as it is, it's pretty gnarly, dudes and dudettes... and not in a righteous way.

"The Gunman" is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality.


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