Having struck an unexpected goldmine by putting Liam Neeson in the lead of a bone crunching, bullets flying thriller in 2009, director Pierre Morel seems now to have a vested interest in turning another aging actor from just another craggy face steeped in gravitas into a veritable action hero.

After failing quite miserably at a repeat of that success story with the bald pate of John Travolta in 2010’s From Paris With Love, Morel has placed all his chips on Oscar winner Sean Penn. It’s a bet as sizeable as the 54-year-old actor’s beefy biceps in this movie, and one that could have paid off handsomely. Particularly because Morel also stacked the deck in his favor by filling out the corners of his story with some admirable character actors: Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone and Idris Elba.

It seems, though, that just as he was granted a one-time-only jackpot with what was seen as stunt casting Neeson in Taken, so too was Morel apparently given one shot at a directorial success. For all its messy plotting and sometimes sloppy fight scenes, there was an undeniable charge to that film, a brash spirit that helped smooth over those dry spots. That energy is entirely lacking in The Gunman, and it’s been replaced with unsteady pacing, unnecessary plot contrivances, and a cantankerousness to match Penn’s onscreen persona.

With what he is given, the veteran actor does his level best. As Jim Terrier, a former special ops soldier turned mercenary for hire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Penn exudes the exhausted air of someone who has seen enough bloodshed and anarchy to last a lifetime. And you feel every bit of his sorrow at having to leave behind his hope for a better future – that’d be Annie, his pretty young NGO doctor girlfriend (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca) – after he’s paid to gun down a government official.

Mostly Penn spends the movie locked into desperation mode. Eight years after the shooting, the folks involved start getting picked off and he is forced to bounce around Europe in search of answers. That it leads him to the doorstep of his former lover, now married off to the man who contracted the hit (Bardem), only adds to his panic. All of that is evident in Penn’s taut yet rumpled body and his darting, manic eyes. A potentially meaningful subplot involving him fighting off the blurred vision and headaches brought on by continued head trauma (something similar to what veteran NFL players suffer) comes off as outright silly the way it’s played in the story.

Like Penn’s character, The Gunman never seems to find sure footing. At each step forward, some odd script or editing or acting choice throws the whole affair into turmoil. Just wait for the scene where Jim and Annie reunite for real, and watch Morel, editor Frédéric Thoraval, and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano turn a moment that could have been rich with tension and heat into half-hearted, lens-flared softcore.

Equally woeful are the work that screenwriters Don Macpherson and Pete Travis do to cut The Gunman from the same cloth of governmental malfeasance and paranoia that made for some of the ‘70s best dramas (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View). As with the recent, equally misguided Blackhat, they try to have it both ways by showing us a character fighting against forces out of his control and then giving him a happy ending with few bumps and bruises to show for it. Our world is, in many ways, even more unsteady than in the period that Lorenzo Semple, Jr., co-scripter of both Condor and Parallax, was working. We need films that truly reflect that. We’re seeing it in full color thanks to the work of documentarians, but our fiction filmmakers are keeping things strictly black and white.

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