Sean Penn tries going full Neeson in the action flick The Gunman but only comes up half-Neeson. Playing a “special forces” contractor – an assassin for hire – the two-time Oscar winner pairs with Pierre Morel, the Taken director who sent Liam Neeson down the revenge-daddy porn path. But Penn, brooding, humorless, and no damn fun, let alone no Neeson, is directionless in this globe-hopping, muddled, thrill-less thriller that futzes around for nearly two hours without figuring which story it wants to tell. In a klutzy, undercooked prologue set in 2006 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the screenwriters (including Penn) seem desperate to go for complex, grownup Graham Greene-style intrigue and morally slippery characters. We get Penn as a muscly, surfing dude (no, we’re not kidding) pretending to be a globally aware good guy but actually in the Congo sniper-y skullduggery of the sort too often indulged in by westerners meddling in third world countries. But after Penn does a hit job and has to hotfoot it out there, things become generic and convoluted. He leaves behind him a volunteer medic (Jasmine Trinka, trying for Ingrid Bergman-level sincerity and nobility) and tricksy colleague and (Javier Bardem, doing a variation on his jam in The Counselor, amusing himself while slumming) and both, of course, figure significantly in his future as he does One Last Job.
The Gunman tries to be smart, aware, and better than the Taken movies but, hell, it’s just another tourist salad bar of stale, limp man-on-the-run clichés with chases, hand-to-hand-combat, gunfire, and an hilariously pretentious sequence set during a bullfight. So many other good actors are on hand – Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba – but, like Penn and Bardem, they all go down for the count. If the mightily gifted Penn and his agents are out for career reinvention, shouldn’t they be thinking more along the lines of a landing him a season of True Detective rather than, say, a gig in The Expendables 4? *½