Movie taglines boast new productions being “From the director of Taken” or “From the cinematographer of The Transporter,” but how many people truly know the name of this mystery moviemaker? Pierre Morel acquired a degree of fame for his association with the Luc Besson film factory, where he cut his teeth as part of the camera and electrical department on a number of the assembly line features — as a steadicam operator on The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Taxi 2 and Transporter 2 — but he also worked as a camera operator on Jonathan Demme’s Charade remake The Truth About Charlie, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.
Less attention is paid to his less mainstream action-oriented fare, and it is certainly fair to point out that the splash provided by his connection with Besson’s “studio” workshop has garnered a degree of awareness, although it falls somewhat short of actual name recognition. But the pluses and minuses must be weighed before passing final judgment on his situation. As a seemingly interchangeable franchise player with Taken and The Transporter, Morel gets overshadowed by the onscreen headliners — Liam Neeson and Jason Statham — and relegated to something of a footnote, in terms of visual style. While his filmography speaks to his role as a shooter, more discerning viewers might question the value of his work, which largely gets reduced and rendered as less focused thanks to the editing of the action. Then again, Morel doesn’t have to worry about anyone knowing his name, so he can sit back and wait for an opportunity to truly make his name mean something more.
And it would seem as if he must have imagined that The Gunman might finally be his lucky break. The movie allows him to leverage his association with the known franchise gamers, but it offers the hint of a promise, a slight departure from the by-the-books schematics we’ve come to expect. Audiences would be wise to remember, though, that “slight” is definitely a relative term.
The gunman in question here is a man named Jim Terrier (Sean Penn), a former Special Forces soldier working as a military contractor (a mercenary for hire) in the Congo around 2006. Internal strife necessitates having such shady types in country to protect humanitarian efforts and the interests of various parties seeking to capitalize on the abundant natural resources in the region. Men with certain particular skills are in high demand, and The Gunman doesn’t shy away from showing us the dark assignments carried out by Terrier at the behest of nefarious and faceless players. We are also treated to the notion that there might be some good in Terrier as well, thanks to his relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), an aid worker who also draws the attention of Felix (Javier Bardem), Terrier’s immediate handler in the field.
Dirty deeds are done, and Terrier must disappear only to pop up eight years later back in the Congo, although this time he’s working on the side of the angels, digging wells and breaking the rules to surf in between strategic meetings. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that his past is going to rear its ugly head. The resulting plot — someone looking to tie up loose ends from that old job decides to bump off all of the key figures — leads to a failed hit on Terrier, who now suffers from post-concussion syndrome, an affliction that serves as little more than a narrative crutch to hinder Terrier in crucial moments.
Despite my hopefully obvious irritation with the simplistic narrative points, I couldn’t help feeling a noticeable degree of admiration for what appears to be a meaningful attempt to step away from the earlier stylistic flourishes Morel is “known” for. The Gunman refuses to edit the action to death, which curiously means that the violence on display will likely catch some viewers off guard. I wouldn’t say that the movie traffics in wholesale bloodlust, but there are lots of grittily intimate exchanges and the tone is decidedly not as cartoonish or rooted in videogame aesthetics as one might expect. The visual framework is actually in keeping with the political allusions, although any resemblance to real world global dynamics is purely coincidental, at best.
The Gunman desires to be a cut above the Taken series, with Penn angling to prove he’s a more nimble and accredited version of Neeson when the going gets tough, but it lacks the kind of merit and distinction of, say, one of the Jason Bourne installments or more somber work like The Constant Gardener, which means Morel will remain an anonymous shooter on the hunt for the target that will grant him a real reputation. (Opens wide Friday)
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