At one point in "The Gunman," the new Sean Penn geopolitical thriller, our star goes surfing. It's supposed to show he has a reckless side, since he's surfing in unsafe territory, but it seems to have a larger, much more obvious purpose: To show us that Penn, at 54, is ripped. Very, very ripped.
It's no accident that the trailer for "The Gunman" notes prominently that it comes from the director of "Taken" ( Pierre Morel ), the 2008 thriller that transformed Liam Neeson into a no-nonsense, border-hopping, middle-aged action star. Despite the high-minded issues ostensibly at play here — Western commercial exploitation of Africa, guilt and penance, love and abandonment — we soon realize the goal is pretty much the same as in "Taken": to have us watch Penn's muscles ripple as he kicks butt in a variety of picturesque locales.
We begin in 2006 in the Congo, where mercenary Jim Terrier (Penn), an ex-special forces man working ostensibly in security, is up to something dodgy with his band of European former military types, who include Felix (Javier Bardem, extra smarmy here) and Cox (the great stage actor Mark Rylance , whose own brand of smarm is less crazed, more chilling). One morning Jim says goodbye to girlfriend Annie (lovely Italian actress Jasmine Trinca , given little to do but act alternately loving, hurt and scared). She thinks he'll be picking her up later at the health clinic where she works. He says he hopes he won't be working late. We know from Penn's face that it might be a long while indeed before he returns.
That same night, as it happens, Jim's task is to assassinate the country's mining minister on behalf of his shadowy foreign bosses. His mission accomplished, Jim needs to leave, and fast. We don't see him again for eight years; After some time in Europe, he's back in Africa, trying to purge his sins with humanitarian work digging wells. But someone's out to kill him. After a sudden attack at his worksite sees him dispatching a bunch of machine-gun toting killers, Jim flees once more, in a desperate fight to find his killers before they find him.
In London, he tracks down his old friend Stanley ( Ray Winstone , world-weary and grizzled as a man can be). He also stops by to see Cox, who informs him ominously that others in their group have died and warns, somewhat unnecessarily: "Keep your eyes open, my friend." He goes next to Barcelona, where he discovers that Felix has become even smarmier and has somehow managed to marry Annie (Why she would do this — let alone plan to adopt a child with him — is not explained). Felix also has a fabulous country home outside Barcelona.
After a vigorous shootout at the aforementioned fabulous country home, the action moves to sunny Gibraltar, with a picturesque confrontation on a carousel, and the mysterious (and very brief) appearance of Idris Elba as a handsome Interpol agent who's fond of using metaphors. And then it's back to Barcelona, where Annie is in great peril. The bloody finale takes place — Where else? — in the city's famed bullfighting ring, with Jim's desperate fight for survival competing with that of the poor bull.
Will Jim Terrier survive, unlike the bull (though actually, bullfighting is now banned in Barcelona)? And will Penn's new action-hero persona survive and flourish? Not clear. Penn — who co-wrote and produced here — doesn't wear the aging action hero mantle as comfortably as Neeson. And with his famous piercing intensity, we're really looking for more character and more story from him, and less shoot-em-up.
OK, we've seen the biceps and the abs. Very nice. Now, back to the brain.
"The Gunman," an Open Road Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong violence, language and some sexuality." Running time: 115 minutes. Two stars out of four.