The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Gunman

I'd like to thank Liam Neeson. I imagine a lot of actors in the late 40's and 50's might want to thank Mr. Neeson. Why is that? Courtesy of his Taken movies (and several others), it seems the middle-aged action star is back and getting a crack at carrying their own movies. The winners? Me. Moviegoers who love to see genuinely talented actors doing fun, more commercial movies. And of course, any and all of us who love a good action flick. Next up, Sean Penn in 2015's The Gunman.

A former special forces operative, Jim Terrier (Penn) has moved onto private security and in 2006 finds himself working with a kill team posing as construction workers in the violent, revolution-worn Congo. Millions (maybe billions) of dollars are up for grabs, leading the team to take out a mining commissioner with Jim taking the shot. He's forced to leave the country, leaving the woman, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), he loves behind. He tries to put it all past him, a lifetime of violence and killing, but he's ripped back into the world. Some eight years later, he's working in Africa as part of a humanitarian project when three men attempt to kill him. Jim dispatches them first, but he knows his past has caught up with him. Other members of the team in the Congo have recently turned up dead. Is Jim next? Who can he trust in the meantime while he finds out?

This movie got panned by critics upon its release last winter. I mean absolutely ripped, just torn up. I thought it looked pretty cool, but the overwhelming amount of negative reviews convinced me not to seek it out. The verdict? I liked it. A lot. It's dark, moody, violent and plays a little bit like a more adult Bourne movie (hold the Matt Damon). 'Gunman' isn't a classic, and at times it does feel a little too familiar to other action genre pieces. The Rotten Tomatoes page refers to this sub-genre as the rapidly aging Over-50 Action Hero Genre (get it? Because the stars are they're aging?!?). I disagree. Sometimes, it's just fun to watch a good, old-fashioned bloody action movie. This ain't a classic, but my goodness, I liked it. So neener-neener, movie critics.

I think Sean Penn is a bit of a nut case, but that's why I like him. His political opinions, he doesn't care what you think of him. He takes film roles he likes, ones that seem to appeal to him. So just like Liam Neeson, it is very cool to see him take on a bullet-riddled action hero role with an ever-increasing body count. Penn's Jim Terrier has been at it for years, killing and killing wherever and for whoever will pay him. It's worn him down to the point his physical condition is rapidly deteriorating (an unnecessary subplot). Pile on the feeling he's lost anything good in his life -- cough the girl cough -- and we've got our moody anti-hero looking for redemption no matter what it takes. In the action genre, it is a well-worn, familiar character but for a good reason. It can be easy to root for that character. He realizes his faults and wants to do something about them dammit! Some reviews said Penn looked bored, but I thought he was pretty damn good.

Now, onto something bigger...Sean Penn himself! In his early 50's while filming 'Gunman,' Penn got absolutely shredded. SHREDDED. His arms are like tree trunks and when he starts dispatching killers on his, he looks like he'd actually rip their heads off. He's in ridiculously good shape, giving the character an edge of authenticity. Penn's face is tan and weathered, giving you the impression he could have been this gun for hire. He's more than capable of handling his own in the action scenes, especially those with hand-to-hand combat. These are quick, bone-crunching fights that are graphic but in a flash. Nothing feels forced, stylized or glamourized. Just highly trained killing machines looking to tear each other apart.

Moving along, the rest of the cast with some halfway decent names. Javier Bardem is a misfire here as Felix, a civilian contractor working with Jim who may have ulterior motives. He's an incredibly talented actor in just about everything I've seen, but this performance is cliched, broad, and way too big, like he's playing a spoof. Trinca is solid in a thankless part as the script generates into triangle. "Yeah." I'm excited...Ray Winstone is a scene-stealer as Stanley, Jim's longtime friend with a hand in everything in the criminal/mercenary underworld. Fun part with some good laughs. Idris Elba makes what amounts to a cameo (maybe 3 scenes) as Barnes, a mysterious...well, something who may or may not be up to something. Last but not least, watch out for Mark Rylance (also excellent in the recent Bridge of Spies) as Cox, the Congo team leader, with Peter Franzen as his brutally efficient enforcer. Some solid supporting parts.

And last but not least, let's talk some blood-splattered action. 'Gunman' has it in droves. As Jim goes globe-trotting across Africa and Europe, a whole lot of people are trying to kill him, and he's more than willing to oblige them (well, the attempt at least). The best set piece has Jim and Annie tearing through an Italian villa as they're chased by a small army of gunmen. The hand-to-hand scenes (as previously mentioned) are quick and hard-hitting, uncomfortable and real. The finale too, set in a Spanish stadium hosting a bullfight, is a gem as well. A lot to offer for those seeking their action fill for the day.

Scenic locations from Africa to London to Spain, an appropriately dark, moody score from composer Marco Beltrami, a quick-moving story with some solid twists and turns, and a pretty good cast, especially Penn, Winstone and Rylance. The critics may disagree, but I definitely liked this action thriller from Pierre Morel. Hopefully you will too!

The Gunman (2015): ***/****

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