Sean Penn: the Geriaction Gunman
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I misjudged The Gunman based on its trailer. I thought it was going to be a preachy political thriller, but it’s actually a Taken knock-off with Sean Penn starring as Liam Neeson Revenge Man. Oh, there’s some moralizing—undoubtedly Penn used his power as producer and co-writer to tack on the geopolitical sermonizing—but The Gunman is more an attempt to reimagine Penn’s career as a 50+ action star a la Tom Cruise and Neeson than it is serious reflection on the current state of global affairs. It doesn’t work, partly because the movie is not good but also because Penn has turned into a sentient slab of beef jerky. The numerous shirtless scenes are a waking nightmare of veins and the skin of a thestral. I am haunted for having seen them.
The globe-hopping plot of The Gunman is almost hopelessly convoluted and it involves multiple double-crossings and assassinations mixed in with a message about first-world exploitation of third-world natural resources, in this case in the Congo. Directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed Taken, the action sequences are competent, but the tone of Morel’s B-grade style action movies doesn’t sit well with Penn’s thoughts on globalization. The Gunman feels like two different movies with two different goals mashed together. It’s not that action movies can’t have a conscience, it’s just that a revenge thriller is not the best vehicle for political messages. Revenge is a personal concept that works for personal stories—it doesn’t fit with larger questions about geopolitics.
Which brings us to the second issue—Sean Penn is not the kind of actor who can sell this role. It’s actually something The Gunman has in common with Insurgent. Penn’s talent is not in question, but he’s not naturally sympathetic to the audience. In order to buy into Liam Neeson Revenge Man, we have to feel sympathy and fondness for the character. We root for the likes of Neeson or Denzel Washington when they play morally compromised characters because they can charm us into liking them despite the characters’ personal failings. But Penn doesn’t inspire sympathy or fondness, so Terrier just comes off as an asshole.
There’s a theory that the so-called “geriaction” genre is fueled by post-recession fears and a desire to return to more straightforward masculine ideals like Clint Eastwood—men who got it done without the blown up muscles so common in today’s action movies. Maybe that’s part of it, but I’m swayed more by the argument that the point of the 50+ action star is to reassure Baby Boomers—who are beginning to retire—that they’ve still got it. There’s no reason for Penn’s shirtlessness in The Gunman except to prove that at 54 he’s still buff. That has nothing to do with economic fear and everything to do with a large swath of men who were raised on the tough-guy action movies of Eastwood and Steve McQueen wanting to know that there’s still a place for them in a pop culture dominated by comic book movies. If anything, I see “geriaction” movies as a direct response to the rise of the superhero and the stable of insanely beefcaked young male stars that play them.
Really, what The Gunman wants to be is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sean Penn wants to be
sentient beef jerky a highly skilled and virtually indestructible badass who comes to realize that the mercenary missions he’s carrying out are corrupted, and who then must dismantle the apparatus of control that has been dictating his mission goals. The Gunman would have worked a lot better if it was just about a mercenary uncovering a corruption plot and left out the whole revenge angle. The minute the conflict becomes personal, the conspiracy ceases to matter because the motivation has fundamentally shifted. The Gunman is not the worst movie I’ve seen of this ilk recently—Neeson’s have been worse—but halfway through watching it I realized I’d rather just go home and watch The Winter Soldier again. So that’s my official recommendation to anyone considering watching The Gunman: Stay home and watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier instead. Which begs the question—do “geriaction” stars have a place among the pantheon of superheroes? Audiences are already wearying of the formula, as borne out by The Gunman’s terrible box office, but superheroes still reign supreme. Is the 50+ action star a fad or something you’d like to keep seeing at the cineplex?
Attached - Sean Penn with Charlize Theron after dinner in LA on Friday night.