In the action thriller The Gunman, Sean Penn, at age 54, looks neither old nor young. He's been in training to look this age for a long time. Even as a relative kid, in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, his sailor-on-shore-leave mug had a wry, quizzical roughness to it; it was the face of a guy who could take a punch, and perhaps already had. His mouth was almost perpetually half-downturned, in either amusement or disgust. The beak of his nose was already well on its way to meeting the cleft in his chin, the way any face, as it ages, begins to collapse on itself. Penn's face today — not so different, just a little weather-beaten — is a badge he didn't even have to earn. It suits him now more than ever.
And sometimes it's enough to anchor The Gunman, the ambitious and only partially successful action thriller from Taken director Pierre Morel. Penn's character, soldier-turned-mercenary Jeff Terrier (that surname tells you a lot), is both a lover and a fighter, capable of both intense lovesickness and high-and-mighty moral standards. As the movie opens, Terrier is stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo circa 2006, a time of devastating national strife following years of civil war. He's a former special-ops guy assigned to protect a group of NGO workers, among them comely doctor Annie (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca), with whom he's romantically involved — they nuzzle each other at the communal dinner table, as Terrier's bossy colleague Felix (a dyspeptic-looking Javier Bardem) slinks around jealously.
Terrier may look and act as if he's someone who really cares, but it becomes clear early on that he's accepted a not-so-selfless mission. Fast-forward eight years: He's a changed man, now doing humanitarian aid in the Congo himself, but he's also lost his lady love, and worse yet, someone is trying to kill him. In his WTF search for answers, he treks first to London, where he quizzes an old cohort (Mark Rylance's Cox, who, with his slicked-back hair and Savile Row suit, looks instantly guilty of something or other), seeks out another former associate for help (the welcome, grizzled presence of Ray Winstone) and eventually treks to Barcelona, intending to find out what his crabby old pal Felix is now up to.
All of that globe-trotting should be exhausting, but Penn's Terrier keeps his stride, frequently removing his shirt so we can see how trim and finely sculpted his torso is: If Penn's got the face of a guy who survives whatever comes his way, his body is definitely the sort of thing you have to work for. Penn's vanity — both in the way he shows off his bod and in the way he drives home the nobility of the once-wayward Terrier — is either the most deeply annoying thing about The Gunman, or the one thing in it that actually works. I'm leaning toward the latter.
The movie pretends to be much more serious than Taken, but at its heart, it's just as silly. (I'm still trying to figure out what the hell Bardem was doing in one scene, rolling about with a Champagne flute held aloft as gunfire breaks out around him.) And though Morel trots around to numerous glam locales — bringing us, ultimately, to a bullfight abounding in splashes of color — the result is still somehow lacking in glamour. It piles on the earnestness as if it were stacking sandbags in a flood zone. And who wants to see Javier Bardem playing a dickweed?
But I happily spent most of The Gunman looking at and thinking about Penn's face. This isn't a great Penn performance, like the ones he's given in Casualties of War and Mystic River; it's not even just a cannily delightful one, as in Carlito's Way or Fast Times. Penn takes himself so seriously as an Actor, with a capital A, that he too easily trips himself up. Even though one of his most lauded performances, in Gus Van Sant's Milk, shows a beating heart, it's also self-consciously actorish. Penn doesn't just want to act; he wants to do great things with his acting — which, paradoxically, just ends up reminding us that we're watching greatness rather than a human being.
Maybe that's why it's weirdly gratifying to watch him shooting guns and busting heads but ultimately just wanting to be a guy who helps poor little kids in Africa get healthy again. Penn's need to be seen as a guy of integrity is left naked in The Gunman, but at least he's having some fun with the action-movie trappings, and with taking his shirt off. Terrier, with his crown-of-thorns squint, is sometimes comically cartoonish. But at least Penn, so at home with the way he looks, conveys the illusion of casualness. Outspoken in his political views and distrustful of all things shiny, Penn may hate the idea of being a movie star. But he's got the face for it, whether he likes it or not.