Well, someone’s been hitting the gym. Since Liam Neeson announced his looming retirement from AARP action movies, Sean Penn and his bulging, hairless pecs are well prepared to work with “Taken” maestro Pierre Morel.
Together they’ve updated a 1981 French novel to our present age of African strife: mercenaries and aid workers mixing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conflict minerals, covert assassinations, and — after an eight-year surfing safari from that dirty game — a U.S. congressional subpoena that pulls shirtless Jim Terrier (Penn) back in.
You know the rest: Jim’s mad killing skills are wrenched back into service; the baddies nab the only woman he ever loved (no, not Madonna); and we hear weary professions of disgust at the whole sordid business (mercenary-dom, not movies).
Though “The Gunman” does offer one genre twist: Jim’s a TBI concussion case, brain-addled almost to the point of “Still Alice,” who must write everything down in notebooks.
As ever, Penn is the grim, humorless professional, squinting out each line like a kidney stone. What elevates “The Gunman” slightly above the median “Taken” are the supporting players. (Neeson never has any beyond Albanian Gangster 1, 2, and 3.)
There’s a bit of pleasure in watching Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance tick off scenes before their characters’ inevitable demise. I will bet you they had a backstage bet as to who could do the least amount of acting for the biggest paycheck. (Winstone wins; though Bardem is the most giggly fun, his performance wobbling like a teacup in a cracked saucer.)
Action doesn’t fully erupt until minute 60, and Morel is competent enough in that department. (The script, however, sounds like it was run through the beta version of Google Translate.)
Through London, Barcelona, and Gibraltar, Penn serviceably kills dozens of flak-jacketed rejects from the “Bourne” movies’ Operation Treadstone. Here one must note that Matt Damon is leaving such muscular super-agent roles behind. But Penn is a proudly fit-looking 54, his “Milk” and “Mystic River” Oscars on the mantle and fellow Oscar winner Charlize Theron on his arm. There’s no reason to begrudge him a simple money role, though “The Gunman” won’t make much coin.
To sop Penn’s conscience, and Jim’s (“I did some bad things!”), there are many scenes of noble NGO workers helping cheerful Africans — which to the pure-action demo will feel like unwanted moral prodding. (Bro, isn’t it enough that I buy sustainably grown coffee beans?)
An older and squintier Sean Penn takes over for Matt Damon in this serviceable international action movie. Pierre Morel, of “Taken” fame, keeps the action — if also the moral prodding — humming. Trio of stalwart actors — Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance — elevate the bad guys to more than just faceless tropes.
Rating: R, for strong violence, language and some sexuality
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium 14, Woodinville, Cascade Mall