“You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying.”
Those words were spoken by actress and choreographer Debbie Allen in the pilot episode of the classic ’80s TV series Fame, as she presided over a class of doe-eyed freshmen with dreams of greatness. In that scene, she described the demands her dance students would face, explaining that the success they craved would not be attainable without an unquenchable spirit and buckets of sweat.
But thirty years later, she could’ve just as easily been speaking to Sean Penn about his latest film. In The Gunman Penn follows the path of other steely-eyed, gray-haired leading men like Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, in a subgenre Penn himself jokingly referred to as “geriaction.”
The Liam Neeson comparison is especially apt, since The Gunman, adapted from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, was directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed Neeson in 2009’s Taken. That film helped Neeson transition from heralded character actor to a bankable action hero. In both films, the leading men take on a posture of dogged tenacity as they fight through waves of bad guys, stoic in the turmoil.
But whereas Taken was mostly about rescue and revenge, The Gunman is more about redemption. In this way, it also bears a passing resemblance to a much superior film adaptation of John le Carre’s novel, The Constant Gardener, because of its similar themes of corruption in humanitarian work.
In The Gunman, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former paramilitary sniper driven to reveal the truth behind a deadly covert operation he carried out eight years prior. The story kicks into gear shortly after his placid life as an aid worker is threatened, not only by his haunted memories, but by operatives who try to kill him in order to silence those memories for good. In his effort to piece together the truth, he tracks down old associates—including an ex-girlfriend—who are all eventually drawn into his web of conspiracy, lies, and violence.
It’s the age-old story of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Leaves Girl Because He Did Bad Things, Other Bad Guys Try to Kill Boy and Then Girl, and then Boy Kills the Bad Guys to Save Girl and Land Rich, Even-Worse Guys In Jail.
(That sounded simpler in my head.)
Unfortunately, The Gunman fails to hit its mark.
The film depicts Terrier’s history as a tortured soul through ham-handed flashbacks (literally flashing back to explosive muzzle flashes from his gun) but fails to fully establish his motive for participating in such a morally dubious operation. After the violent finale, the denouement is heavy on moralistic overtones but light on actual answers. Even the light sprinkling of criminally underused Idris Elba does little to bring the story into three dimensions.
And while Sean Penn is obviously quite toned for a man in his fifties, in The Gunman he displays neither the gravitas of Liam Neeson nor the weary likeability of Harrison Ford. His performance comes off as rather dull and unemotional.
In The Gunman audiences will see that redemption, like fame, is costly. It requires effort, sacrifice, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears. But like a home improvement project, sometimes redemption costs the most when you try to do it yourself. For example, Penn’s character is motivated to embrace humanitarian work as a way to atone for personal failures. But if you’re gauging the completion of your work by how many needs are left unmet, there are always more needs. There are always more corrupt officials to expose, bad guys to vanquish, or innocents to rescue.
But like a home improvement project, sometimes redemption costs the most when you try to do it yourself.
Matthew 26 recounts an episode where Jesus was dining at the home of Simon the Leper and a woman doused him with expensive perfume, which the disciples immediately complained about. “We could’ve sold that and helped the poor,” they lamented. Jesus responded by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” With those words, Jesus chose to honor the costly act of worship this woman had lavished upon him, but he was also, I believe, making a statement about the limitations of altruism. It’s good to help people, Jesus was saying, but that’s no substitute for a loving relationship with the Helper.
That same principle was at play after Jesus had miraculously fed five thousand and, even more miraculously, walked on water, the people asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” His response: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Jesus redirected their attention away from external change (works) toward internal change (belief).
With the resurrection fresh in our memory, it’s worth remembering that the reason Jesus had to die was that none of us humans can undertake complete redemption on our own. As compellingly entertaining it can be (or in this case, could’ve been) to watch a lone gunman try to set things right, in the grand scheme of eternity it’s still woefully inadequate.
So if you, like me, saw Sean Penn’s The Gunman and still felt vaguely dissatisfied, that’s good. It means you’re ready to believe in something—or someone—better.