The Gunman is a gritty, exotic action movie with all the trappings of a Bond film.
It has a highly-skilled protagonist, a host of exotic locations, brutal action scenes that would make Jason Bourne blush and a convoluted plot complete with plenty of moral grays.
But The Gunman is striving for something a little more grounded. By giving its hero a topical weakness and a guilty conscience that he actually tries to make up for, he is much more human than Bond ever has been. It gives the movie enough to differentiate itself from Bond also-ran status.
The film stars Sean Penn as Jim Terrier, the titular gunman who is involved in shady dealings in central Africa. By day, he provides security to NGOs trying to genuinely help the population caught in a conflict zone. His girlfriend, Annie, (Jasmine Trinca), is a doctor who patches people up all day. But he has another, less honorable job, one that forces him to flee the country. He tries to atone for his sins, which goes swimmingly up until the point where his past catches up to him and a parade of assassins chases him around Africa and Europe.
What follows is a high energy fugitive spy plot — Terrier has to figure out who's trying to kill him, and he leaves an impressive body count on the way. But there's a caveat. His military background and violent lifestyle have left him with chronic head trauma, and too much action renders him unconscious. It's a nod to realism — anyone exposed to the level of violence that Terrier has would actually be damaged — that anchors the movie with just the right touch of believability. The ripped-from-the-headlines nature of his injury is slightly convenient (given the conversation about head trauma in, say, the NFL right now), but it works.
This element actually makes those spectacular action scenes all the more exciting. I felt every blow with much more urgency, knowing that Terrier might actually go down. He may still essentially be superhuman — he's smarter and tougher than just about every low-level bad guy in the movie — but at least he's not a god.
It helps that Terrier is human in other ways. After his shady life as a sniper for hire, he signs on with another NGO in another conflict zone, building wells and trying to do some good with his skills. There's a very human need to make up for some of his wrongdoing, which goes a long way to make him relatable.
Where The Gunman serves up fantastic action and serviceable spy plotting, it fails in the romance department. Annie is essentially an object for Terrier to love, leave, and try to protect. She has an obviously flat affair with Felix, (a scenery-chewing Xaviar Bardem) that is transparently meant to give our hero a reason to creepily spy on her. Trinca does her best in a thankless role, but The Gunman is all about Terrier.
This is a missed opportunity. While Penn carries the role capably, the hugely talented supporting cast feels underutilized. Ray Winstone surfaces as Frank's old army buddy, his truest friend in the movie. But the bigger waste is Idris Elba, rocking a three piece and looking for all the world like Bond himself, as an interpol agent who doesn't have nearly enough scenes. It's impossible not to wonder about Elba as Bond, or to imagine what The Gunman would've looked like with Elba in the title role.
Like director Pierre Morel's previous work with the Taken series, The Gunman presents a sort of hyper-masculine world where a sufficiently motivated badass can prevail against the shadowy forces in the world and protect the woman or women that he loves. The Gunman is more interesting and more nuanced, presenting a hero that's damaged in realistic ways. It adds just enough weight to give it an edge in a crowded action genre.