Sean Penn Now & Then: The Gunman & State Of Grace Blu-Ray Reviews (The Hollywood News)

THE GUNMAN (2015)

SP TGA 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)

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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.

The Gunman & State Of Grace reviews appeared on The Hollywood News.

Brilliant But Blatant Movie Product Placements (The Hollywood News)

AS CTMUK TV viewers are currently being treated to the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger being blackmailed by two nattily-dressed Eastern European meerkats. Tied in with the release of Terminator: Genisys, this is an advert for car and home insurance – now the T-800 has popped up in some odd places, but lending itself to a company that helps you when your water pipes burst? That’s a whole new level of terror. As the star reaches pensionable age, so the endorsements get more staid and sensible.

What with Sylvester Stallone flogging sliced bread and Jean-Claude Van Damme karate’ing his way round his own ice palace for a popular beer brand, it seems Eighties action stars are really starting to build those nest eggs. It isn’t a great surprise to see these commercially-minded butt-breakers sign up for the big bucks – after all Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Bruce Willis made a hefty mint out of the Planet Hollywood restaurant franchise. Yet when the likes of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and even Al Pacino start appearing in your home hawking various products and services it opens a different chapter on the history of movie stars mingling with the Mad Men.

Bill Murray mildly spoofed stars who absconded to foreign territories to peddle rubbish in Lost In Translation. However these days the business of plastering your face onto a money-making exercize is viewed with less embarrassment, to the extent that Sean Penn weighed in to criticize his fellow actors for being quite so quick to open their wallets. Mind you, he’s a fine one to talk, as our list is about to demonstrate!

Here we take a moolah-strewn peek at the complex relationship between the film industry and advertising. Along the way we uncover some alarming examples of Hollywood shunting brand names front of camera, in creative or often just blatant fashion. This is the art of extracting cash from unsuspecting punters, and where better to start than our first choice, a man who earns a crust from being covert? Well, as covert as a handsome man in a tuxedo doing major stunts in capital cities can be…

JAMES BOND (1962 – present)

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The 007 franchise has been a bandwagon of luxury brand names for decades. From the Aston Martin he drives, to the Walther PPK he shoots people with, right through to the tipple he enjoys after a hard shift beating up bad guys and bedding beauties (Martini, shaken not stirred) this agent has a licence to print money as well as kill.

Today’s Bond is no different, with watch manufacturers, fashion houses and even purveyors of fragrances courting Daniel Craig‘s attention. Be it deploying one of Q’s gadgets, checking the time to see whether the bar is open or tearing up the streets of an exotic location, there’s a queue of corporations as long as Richard “Jaws” Kiel‘s arm waiting to put their stamp all over the latest adventure.

There are too many examples of product placement in the Bond movies to catalogue here, but my favourite was Pierce Brosnan‘s Nineties superspy driving a remote control BMW off a roof in Tomorrow Never Dies… landing it perfectly in the window of a Hertz rental shop!

CARRY ON UP THE JUNGLE (1970)

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The Carry Ons epitomized the idea of a long-running film series way before the blockbuster entries of Hollywood. Featuring liberal helpings of irreverence and outright sauce, their approach was also characterized by the product placement on offer. It’s perhaps appropriate that iconic star Sid James became the arch exponent of this.

Known to be partial to a drop of Scotch whiskey, he took his interest to new extremes for studio-bound tropical romp Carry On Up The Jungle. In an infamous sequence he opened a cabinet, where an obscene amount of Johnny Walker Red Label was seen inside!

Ranking as one of the booziest movie scenes since Richard Harris and Richard Burton sat down for a chat and a vat of spirits in The Wild Geese, the unexpected and, more importantly, distilled addition to the shoot ensured both the actor’s representatives and his thirst were satisfied.

BLADE RUNNER (1982)

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Director Ridley Scott‘s visionary sci-fi epic impressed audiences in many respects, bringing them a neon-soaked urban landscape the likes of which they’d never seen before. One of the factors which rang true was the generous helping of brand names lit large amongst the giant geisha faces and the pollution.

Everyone recognized Coca-Cola, but the film also highlighted other logos that reflected the Eighties as much as a futuristic vibe. Atari and Pan-Am were two of the major entities on the list that either changed and vanished into the smog in ensuing years.

Interestingly, there is a “curse” associated with the machine-hunting masterpiece. A noticeable number of companies who got displayed prominently wound up going the way of the replicants! I wonder who’ll be queueing up to have their wares splashed all over the upcoming sequel like a robot’s brains…?

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

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Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis‘s lucrative comedy spawned a lot of merchandise, and these two savvy humour-mongers may have had their gameplan worked out to perfection – the ectoplasmic quartet were branded with a distinctive logo, Ray Parker Jr.‘s catchphrase-heavy title track became the anthem for a generation and the “ugly little spud” Slimer was a toymaker’s dream come true.

Yet the writers also cannily included everyday products in their concept, some of which must base part of their revenue on the basis of ‘Buster involvement. American sweet treat the Twinkie got a name check in a legendary piece of dialogue from Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz. And then there was the small matter of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

A massive dude made of marshmallows dressed in a sailor outfit may have been fairly low on the list of global threats up to that point, but you can be sure the citizens of New York found him pretty damned horrifying after he tried to wreck the city in a fondant-fuelled rampage! How the incident affected Stay Puft’s profits has yet to be revealed.

U-TURN (1997)

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When you find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, in a dustbowl hotter than Ricky Martin’s jockstrap, you’re going to get thirsty, right? That was exactly the type of hard-boiled nightmare experienced by Sean Penn in Oliver Stone‘s vicious thriller U Turn.

While Penn’s character Bobby found numerous distractions in the remote community of Superior, most notably Jennifer Lopez‘s femme fatale Grace, it was the prominent appearance of a lower level brand name that gave viewers the impression they were suddenly watching the world’s harshest soft drinks commercial.

Usually a vending machine in an American movie is full of the all-powerful elixir that is Coke. However, when Bobby really needed to drench his parched throat after a battering Stone opted for the lesser-known Dr Pepper as the town’s speediest source of refreshment. Penn may well look back on this scene and shudder, bearing in mind he took A-Listers to task recently for their flagrant ties to advertising!

As long as the film business earns money, the big beasts of commerce will always be looking to make a deal. But it’s an interdependent thing between art and acquisition, that shows no sign of either party wanting to kick the other out of bed.

This feature appeared on The Hollywood News