THE GUNMAN (2015)
A surprising feature of the mature action movie’s unexpected rise has been the calibre of names attracted. Oscar-winner Liam Neeson reinvented his career via the Taken franchise, and now director Pierre Morel nets Sean Penn for butt-kicking duties in The Gunman. Of course Penn is as known for his staunch political views as his acting, so there’s a bit more going on here than a simple case of a tin opener and a can of whup-ass.
He plays the hilariously-named Jim Terrier, who operates in the murky world of private security in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With one foot in the humanitarian end of the equation (alongside surgeon girlfriend Jasmine Trinca) and the other working at the behest of corporate interests, it isn’t long till an impromptu assassination leads to Terrier fleeing the scene. Years later, this bone-cruncher of conviction is helping the poor with their water supply when unknown elements come to wipe him out. The rippling star (looking exceptionally craggy in full HD) must then traverse the globe, tracking down his former associates and trying to work out who wants his head on a platter.
Penn performs this wronged tough guy well, but the central character also displays the movie’s key weakness. If you’re following a man on the run it helps if you have some sympathy for him. Terrier’s former act of atrocity is so appalling it’s very difficult to get on board. In fact his workmates – now trying to live their lives as well-paid stuffed shirts – convey more remorse than he does. It helps that they are played by a truly impressive supporting cast – fans of brooding, middle-aged actors have an embarrassment of riches. In addition to Penn you’ve got Winstone, Bardem, Elba… not to mention Mark Rylance.
This is Rylance’s first high profile villain role, and he’s as good as you’d expect. But even he starts to go adrift as the story builds to a pretentious climax at a bullfight. Co-writer Penn must take responsibility for some dialogue so cheesy you could coat it in red wax and market it for Edam. It’s a strange combination of scribes overall – the script also carries the names of Don Macpherson (The Avengers – as in the Ralph Fiennes one!) and Dredd‘s Pete Travis. Also you might think Penn would work up a more balanced battle of the sexes, but no. Trinca is presented as impossibly saintly and well-lit as the female element, and is required to do little more than freak out and weep as bullets fly over her head. Out of the stellar line up, Winstone makes an impression as Terrier’s wing man, dressed like a member of Status Quo.
The special features show the verbose actors speak up in support of their infamous star/writer/producer. And you’ve got to hand it to him for trying to do something a bit different, even if this bird is really carrying too much on its back for it to fly. On the whole the film does alright as a chunky slice of smack-happy tosh. The various fights and car chases are decent, care of Taken veteran Morel. However the efforts of The Gunman to be both relevant and disposable means it collapses between two stools, bearing a mismatched combination of lean muscle and well-meaning paunch. It sort of apes the Bourne films, but they kept their subtext as fleeting as Matt Damon‘s footwork. Penn just isn’t a light enough touch for the beer and pizza crowd.
STATE OF GRACE (1990)
Sean Penn and Gary Oldman are long-established in the movie firmament, but they were once young guys who fired on all cylinders in edgier fare. An opportunity to remind viewers of this has presented itself with the release of State Of Grace on Blu-ray. A well-made crime thriller set in Hell’s Kitchen, it caught a few actors on their way up the ladder, from Ed Harris to John Turturro.
Penn plays Terry Noonan, who returns to the New York neighbourhood he grew up in looking for employment. This means rekindling his relationship with the Flannerys, an Irish family with whom he was intimately involved. Best friend Jackie (Oldman) is an unstable enforcer who works for hoodlum brother Frankie (Harris). The place has changed in Noonan’s decade-long absence, as locals are squeezed out by the property boom. Frankie is turning against the people he used to call friends in a bid to impress a mob boss (Joe Viterelli). Meanwhile, Terry encounters old flame Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright), who in attempting to distance herself from her heritage represents salvation for Penn’s tortured soul.
Partway through the story there’s a revelation about the lead character that isn’t a surprise if you’ve read any of the publicity. However if you avoid the blurb you may find, like I did, that the development deepens your involvement in the narrative.
The decaying urban backdrop to the film is very interesting, arguably more so than the players out front. No-one here is that likeable, but the situation – always one step away from disaster as Oldman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic – is a compelling walk along a cinematic knife’s edge. Acts of shocking violence are committed under the auspices of maintaining “good manners” amongst the criminal fraternity, a more appropriate term than most in this case. Death has become a constant feature of these peoples’ lives: a friend is pulled out of the river on the same day Terry and Jackie have to attend a funeral.
In addition to the main cast there is a treasure trove of talent in support to keep your attention glued – John C. Reilly (looking exactly the same as he does now!) takes the role of a wayward peer and screen legend Burgess Meredith has a short but poignant scene as Penn is sent to his apartment to collect money.
We’ve seen this type of set up before (I was reminded a little of Mean Streets) but director Phil Joanou gives the production its own life, shooting in a sweeping, epic style that lends itself nicely to the Blu-ray treatment. Dennis McIntyre’s solidly-constructed script boasts some snappy dialogue – “What, are you some kind of asshole or are you taking lessons?” – that’s a treat for the ear. Speaking of which, Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is a key aspect of this class act. There are strong minor touches also, such as the moment henchman R.D. Call scoops up some nuts to eat after gunning down a bar owner.
The disc carries around twenty-five minutes of special features, which are decent. Directing A Bunch Of Gangsters has an enthusiastic Joanou describing the process and Harris shows up to discuss the role of Frankie in his own featurette. Nothing extensive, but certainly enough to satisfy anyone with a curiosity.
Ultimately the film isn’t in the same league as Scorsese. The striking slow-motion climax really belongs somewhere else. Oldman overdoes it and Wright is just plain drippy. Yet State Of Grace remains a punch-packing entry in the twentieth century gangster movie canon and is worth catching in hi-def twenty-five years later.