Why I wasn’t sold on “The Gunman”

The Gunman Review(Courtesy of Chicago Tribune)

I’m an ’80s kid, and I suppose that will always be my point of reference in the way I judge all things entertainment. That mental point of departure was ever present, not before but after I settled in to watch “The Gunman” starring Sean Penn.

It hadn’t occurred to me until things got underway, but it happened quickly once it did. There I was, in Africa, trying oh so hard to believe that the man who had played Jeff Spicoli so many years ago could make me believe he was not only a mercenary, but a cold, calculating operative, and a murderer to boot.

It isn’t that I believe an actor should continuously accept the same roles, believe me. I enjoyed the performances of Joe Pesci as the slick talking, incredibly amusing fledgling quasi-attorney every bit as much in “My Cousing Vinnie” every bit as much as I believed him to be the vicious, psychopathic killer in “Goodfellas.”

But it has to be right. For a film to engage me, the performance must be immersive and believable, to me. I wish I could, as that would make many more films out there much more attractive. But I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t enjoy Jim Carrey as a heart surgeon, or Jean Claude Van Damme as a circus clown. You get the picture.

None of this is to say that actors and actress can’t cross over. It’s been done successfully, though not by many. Perhaps this is the fault of one too many agents convincing their thespian clients to take on the “same role” one too many times. Or maybe it’s the performer who felt comfortable in the niche of a specific kind of character.

Regardless, to some extent, I think we all do it. When Stallone’s face pops up on the screen we’re eagerly anticipating action. Whatever role Pesci plays, we know he’s going to get angry about something, or more likely at someone. We assign traits to the actor, but even more so to the character he or she is portraying. It’s only natural.

Which brings us to “The Gunman” and why I never really engaged with this film enough to say I liked it. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good work here. Jasmine Trinca is quite believable as Annie, the altruistic doctor girlfriend of Penn’s character. She’s pretty, yet not too much so to be dismissed by serious critics, and acquits herself admirably in spite of numerous plot twists which require her to swing across a pendulum of emotions.

But Penn just doesn’t do it for me. Yes, he does work with a certain gravitas, but it just seems misplaced when displayed on the face of a man I just can’t see being a badass. Maybe I’ve seen “Fast Times” too many times, or maybe I’ve seen too much about him, to believe that he is what he is supposed to be in this film.

Idris Elba appears in “The Gunman”, though perhaps too late to save the film from it’s rather obvious, “we’ve seen this one before” ending. He’s probably a bit too slick in his part, but a more fleshed-out role with greater substance might have been an excellent alternative to the place in the script to which he was assigned.

Yes, I’m well aware that this was not the first serious role for Penn. After all, a couple of Oscars are nothing to laugh at, and he didn’t get those by playing Spicoli. But as an action hero (and this movie is nothing if not an action movie), I simply cannot convince myself to believe.

Anyway, the musical score is decent, and there is some good work in “The Gunman.” But while I might have been sold on the plot, the settings, and even the script, I simply wasn’t willing to buy the star of this film.

The next day when I took a break from working, took a flyer on “Cleanskin” with Sean Bean as the protagonist. It’s a drama like “The Gunman.” The plot was standard fare for this type of movie, with terrorists, prostitutes, and soldiers turned lawmen who strive to make this sometimes dirty world a cleaner place. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the script, but Bean delivered in the role of a hardened British agent who embarks on a mission that turns into a personal quest. Basically, it was nothing new under the sun. Only this time I hardly noticed the thinness of the plot, or the cliched action scenes,, because the leading man fit the part.